As the government publishes a draft bill on the reform of the House of Lords, the prime minister prepares to unleash his backbenchers against the legislation.
This morning, the Cabinet endorsed a series of slight revisions to Nick Clegg’s proposals for Lords reform. The draft bill sets out plans for a predominantly elected second chamber comprised of between 300 and 450 members (precise details are not yet known, but the Telegraph suggests that it is “largely unchanged from a draft bill published last year which envisaged an 80 per cent elected Upper House of 300 members, sitting for single 15-year terms”). It will be published on Wednesday.
After the Cabinet meeting, Downing Street’s spokesperson sought to give the impression of cross-coalition unity:
“It is a government bill. It will be whipped appropriately. If necessary we will us the Parliament Act. The usual rules [for ministerial aides] apply.”
The Guardian, quoting one Liberal Democrat source as saying that “this really is game on”, reports that there was “strong support for the measures amongst the 16 cabinet speakers during a 50-minute discussion” this morning.
One could be forgiven a sceptical response to that: as Left Foot Forward reported last week, Lords reform is now the principle battleground for coalition infighting.
For all Downing Street’s bluster about the use of the government whip, it’s a given that somewhere in the region of one hundred Tory backbenchers will rebel against the reform bill: it’s set to be the biggest rebellion of Cameron’s premiership. How, then, will Cameron respond?
In today’s Telegraph, Benedict Brogan reveals that the prime minister “is giving private advice to his colleagues about the consequences of rebellion“.
“You may recall that last year, at the time of the European vote that saw 81 Tories vote against the Government, we heard of all sorts of threats made about careers being ended and chances of preferment destroyed. Rebels were left in no doubt that they were defying Dave, and would suffer as a consequences.
Not so this time.
I am assured that those MPs who have troubled to ask the PM in private have been assured that rebellion on Lords reform will do no harm to their career prospects. Just as Lib Dems were allowed by Mr Clegg to withhold their support from Jeremy Hunt, so Mr Cameron will tolerate his MPs withholding their support for Lords reform. Will Mr Clegg find it within him to say, as Mr Cameron did, “that’s politics, I understand that”?”
• Labour must get back to its principles on Lords reform 23 April 2012
• A coalition at war over Lords reform 23 April 2012
• Tories threaten to ignore their mandate on Lords reform 20 April 2012
• Lords big beasts turn up the heat on reform 27 June 2011
If he does, he’ll say it through gritted teeth, as everyone around him wonders how the Liberal Democrats can possibly remain much longer in coalition with a party that undermine them further at every turn.
We scarcely need point out, yet again, that this schoolboy approach to politics involves the Conservative Party entirely forgetting their own manifesto commitments from 2010.
This is a prime minister who, in bringing forward the most important constitutional reform bill in Britain’s recent history, is prepared to let the legislation pass whilst egging on his backbench enragées behind the scenes, stripping Lords reform of credibility before it has even passed into law, and alienating his coalition partners.
How much more disinterested in coalition government can he actually get?