By Matthew Barrett
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The newspapers today are, of course, filled with plenty of Lords rebellion stories. The Observer has details of a letter written by 36 cross-party peers, including Norman Lamont and Geoffrey Howe, and…
"…the former Northern Ireland secretary and party chairman Peter Brooke, the former Scottish secretary Michael Forsyth, the former agriculture minister Michael Jopling, the former transport secretary John MacGregor, the former attorney general Patrick Mayhew, the former Scottish secretary Ian Lang and former environment, industry and social security secretary Patrick Jenkin. Another signatory is the former Liberal leader David Steel."
The letter argues that the Lords is "a vast reservoir of talent and experience, which complements the more youthful and vigorous House of Commons without ever being able to threaten it", and reform along Nick Clegg's suggested lines would "remove the unambiguous democratic mandate the House of Commons currently enjoys".
Such attempts at persuading MPs may be necessary: a number of newspapers report the number of Tory rebels to be at 80 – as opposed to 100, the figure given a number of times during the week. The Sunday Telegraph confirms the whips are responsible for the drop in numbers – and says the Prime Minister will telephone rebels to further try and change their minds:
"Sources across Westminster agree that Tuesday’s vote on House of Lords reform is on a “knife edge”. It is understood the number of Conservative rebels has fallen from almost 100 to around 80 in recent days as the whips have set to work shoring up support for the Government. … This weekend the Prime Minister is to ring rebel Tories directly in an attempt to persuade them to change their minds."
If the Prime Minister can persuade enough of the 80 probable Tory rebels to stay loyal on Tuesday, this rebellion may look a lot less threatening than it did a week ago – if the rebels suffer another loss of 20 MPs, Lords reform – or rather the limiting of debate about Lords reform – will suddenly become possible to get through the House.
A good omen for the rebels, meanwhile, is that the ringleaders of the opposition to Clegg's plans cannot easily be accused of being the usual "Tory right" Coalition-wrecking sort:
"Although some Lib Dems have tried to dismiss the opponents as “the awkward squad”, many have not voted against the Government before. … The Conservative MPs spearheading the opposition to the reforms include Jesse Norman, Eleanor Laing, Oliver Heald and Tracey Crouch. Those opposing the bill are calling themselves “the Sensibles”."
James Forsyth, in the Mail on Sunday, says something similar:
"What concerns the whips is that the rebels are not just the usual suspects. They include four select committee chairmen, almost all of the officers of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, several parliamentary private secretaries and some of the brightest members of the 2010 intake."
This means that the rebellion is composed of many obviously moderate and popular MPs who are not thought of as being hostile towards the Government – it's not simply a good showing of the usual suspects. This matters because if the rebels are successful, the fight might not end there. Forsyth writes:
"What the Lib Dems do will depend on the margin of defeat for the programme motion. If it goes down heavily, those around the Deputy Prime Minister accept the Bill will have to be abandoned. But if it is a relatively small loss, they will try to vote down the rebels at a later date."
On Cameron's mind will not just be the number of rebels, but the calibre. Cameron would probably be rather firmer in advising Clegg not to pursue his Lords reforms if he sees enough bright new MPs, PPS's, '22 Committee members, and so on, amongst those who voted to have a full and proper debate on the subject. That said, the Sunday Times (£) report makes clear that "the government" – the paper does not make clear whether this is the yellow or blue half (or both) - is prepared to fight for the proposals:
"The government is expected to force a string of late-night sittings to wear down opponents if the motion is defeated. Government whips are likely to attempt to “ambush” the rebels by forcing a surprise vote on a second timetable motion in the middle of the night."
However, the rebels are preparing some splendidly Eric Forth-esque tactics to counter this:
"The Tory rebels are assembling a “filibuster squad” of about 30 MPs who would attend the Commons chamber at short notice in the middle of the night to talk the bill out. The rebels include at least three ministerial aides, who will probably have to resign from the government or could be sacked."
If that scenario plays out, the Coalition will have a real problem on its hands. It cannot act antagonistically towards its own backbenchers, even if this smaller "filibuster" group numbers only 30, because it does not, unlike the Blair governments, have a large enough majority to be able to ignore the concerns of a large number of its backbenchers in this way.
The final word on Lords reform this morning should go to John Redwood, who has blogged on his opposition to the proposals:
"I have difficulties with mixing elected and non elected members in the same House. There is a danger of two tiers emerging, with the elected ones claiming greater authority than the non elected. The elected, being more normal party politicians, are likely to want to intervene in MP constituencies politically. They will be able to cherry pick cases and causes they think will help them or their party, without being responsible for all the case work in a given area in the way an MP is."