By Paul Goodman
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The debate on the Government's Lords Reform Bill begins today and concludes tomorrow. Here is a brief guide to try to help you through the maze of spin about what's happening now and will happen next:
- Don't believe what you read about numbers… Both Whips and rebels have an interest in talking up the number of rebels – the latter so that they can put heart into potential rebels, the former so that they can proclaim "success" if the number is less than expected. So be sceptical, for example, about today's report in the Independent in which "privately, Tory whips say there is a high chance that the Coalition is about to be defeated for the first time in a Commons vote on an important piece of legislation". Some rebels that the whips have targeted will peel off. However, new ones will emerge that the Whips aren't expecting. The Prime Minister will have rung around potential rebels over the weekend.
- …Especially since the Whips' role is ambiguous… The Financial Times (£) reports this morning that some Conservative MPs believe that Downing Street can't be serious about the measure if William Hague, rather than George Osborne, has been dispatched to lead a whipping operation for the bill. But this may itself be spin: Mr Hague is the ultimate party loyalist – and symbol of loyalty – and this may be enough to explain his involvement. What is certain is that the Whips have been pulled hither and thither during the last few weeks. First, David Cameron told Andrew Griffiths in a private meeting that rebels wouldn't see their career prospects harmed. Next, the Whips had to crack down on potential rebels after this got out. Their view is in any event ambiguous. There have been reports of the Whips' phone-round on the measure beginning late and of rebellion being discreetly encouraged. However this may be, John Randall, the Deputy Chief Whip, has a record of voting against Lords Reform.
- …But they have many different means of persuasion at their disposal. I am not referring to "dark arts" – but, rather, to the arguments they will deploy. One is: "Look, old boy, you don't need to try to stop the bill – the Lords will do that anyway." (This ignores the Government potentially pushing it through by means of the Parliament Act.) Another is: "Look, the time to vote against the bill is at Third Reading, because it may be amended before then in ways agreeable to you." (To which the so-called "Sensibles", the Tory opponents of the Bill, reply by pointing out that the Liberal Democrats are insisting that it passes more or less unamended – and that Richard Reeves, Nick Clegg's recently-departed Director of Strategy, let this cat out of the bag in his recent Independent interview.) Yet another is: "If you want to vote against the bill, vote against Second Reading – just let the programme motion be." (This is because Second Reading will pass anyway, since Labour are voting for it. Which leads us to…)
- Watch what happens with the Programme Motion. If the Government is defeated on the Programme motion, Commons debate on the bill could run on into the autumn or later, wrecking the Government's programme and destablising Downing Street. If one isn't tabled at all, it means the Whips believe they wouldn't have won one – at least now. They may wait and table one later, after Tory MPs are growing tired of interminable debate on the bill. But watch for a blame game to begin if the motion falls or is delayed. (By the way, keep an eye out for Labour pro-reform diehards voting for the Programme.) The Whips may timetable debate for weekends. They will threaten to make the House sit during the summer recess. Most likely, they will make it sit late on a Thursday, wrecking backbenchers' constituency diaries for the next day, and causing them deliberate local embarrassment by doing so. The aim of such manoevres is to make backbench MPs blame the rebels for forcing extra sittings on the Government. The response of the rebels will be to move closure motions to make it clear that they're not to blame.
- Resignations, pamphlets, round robin letters – all are likely to be carefully co-ordinated. Stephen Dorrell is in the Guardian today with a piece for the reforms, based on a pamphlet that's been sent round to all his colleagues. Nicholas Soames is in the Telegraph making the opposite case, pointing out that this is only the second time he has voted against is party. This is all part of the spin war.
- Look out for for resignations or sackings. The most obvious suspect is Conor Burns, the engaging PPS to Owen Paterson – whose public protests about the bill seem to part of the longest resignation in history. The most colourful way of quitting is to announce it during a Commons speech on the measure concerned – as Adam Holloway did during last year's EU referendum debate. Alternatively, Burns and others may simply wait to be sacked.
- Stay alert for the start of debate on the use of Parliament Act. If the Government runs into real trouble in the Lords with the bill – which it will if it goes there – it will doubtless threaten further to use the Parliament Act to push it through. One leading "Sensible" told me that the best witnesses to the Joint Committee on the Bill said that the Government would be entitled to do so – even though there was no clear commitment to the bill in either the Conservative manifesto or the Coalition Agreement.
- Could a referendum be the Government's way out? Most of the interest groups concerned have reasons not to like a referendum on the issue. The rebels, because they think they may lose it. Nick Clegg, because he thinks he may, too – andthat a second referendum loss on a constitutional issue could set in trail events that could force him out of office. Some Government Ministers would be nervous of the knock-on effects on a possible EU referendum, although I have found Ministers surprisingly relaxed on the matter. The Joint Committee recommended a referendum. David Cameron has blown hot and cold about it. It could be his way out if the bill gets stuck in the Commons and a referendum amendment is moved. Mr Clegg will naturally cling to his bill, but would be short of arguments to make in public against the people deciding.
> On Comment today, Richard Harrington MP explains why he will be rebelling against the Government on Lords reform. On the other side of the debate John Strafford backs an elected Lords.