In threatening to rebel over Lords reform, Tory backbenchers are forcing the government to renege on both manifesto promises and the coalition agreement.
Reform of the House of Lords, it appears, is now a red line for a considerable number of Conservative backbenchers.
Three Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPS) are now prepared to vote against the bill – a move that would, in effect, mean their resigning and engendering the most serious challenge to David Cameron’s authority since the coalition government’s formation in 2010.
Indeed, one MP, speaking to the Telegraph, noted that any rebellion on Lords reform would ‘dwarf’ the 81 backbenchers who voted for a referendum on EU membership last year, suggesting that the plans were a direct threat to the Conservative Party.
“Whatever you think about the elected lords, this has the potential to destroy the party. We stand for integrity and unity.”
As such, the plans will almost certainly now be shelved: Cameron’s track record, when it comes to picking (and winning) fights with his own backbenchers, is not auspicious.
Yet the situation is more than usually problematic, since reforming the House of Lords was a feature of the Conservative manifesto in 2010:
“We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords, recognising that an efficient and effective second chamber should play an important role in our democracy and requires both legitimacy and public confidence.”
Admittedly, the language is rather cagey – ‘work to build a consensus’, ‘mainly-elected’ – but the commitment is nonetheless there. Moreover, outside the Tory ranks, the issue of Lords reform isn’t remotely controversial: if anything, it’s consensual. Labour, of course, have been talking about Lords reform since 1997, and continue to do so.
The Liberal Democrat 2010 manifesto was equally explicit on the matter:
“[We will] replace the House of Lords with a fully-elected second chamber with considerably fewer members than the current House.”
As was this subsection of the coalition agreement, no less:
“We agree to establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010…
“In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.”
• Lords big beasts turn up the heat on reform 27 Jun 2011
• Diversity and democracy: Reforming the Lords 1 Jun 2011
• Is Lord Glasman more radical than the Young Fabians? 18 Jan 2011
Two years ago, those Tory MPs now threatening rebellion on this issue happily campaigned on a manifesto a central commitment of which they had no intention of honouring. One might legitimately ask which other pledges they have similar reservations about.