It’s almost incredible that after public spending and benefit cuts of £109bn went through with scarcely a murmur of rebellion, the reform of the Lords now look set to be the issue that splits the Coalition in two. It’s incredible because no-one in their right mind can make the argument that with 92 hereditary peers still there and the prime minister of the day using patronage to appoint huge numbers at will (Cameron has already appointed 117 in less than a year), reform isn’t necessary.
It’s incredible because all three parties committed in their manifestos before the last election that they would do just this and finish reform of the Lords left unfinished by Blair. And it’s incredible because the only argument being voiced against it is that it is not a priority and would be time-consuming and complex – it would be, but so are most important bills, and if it’s not a priority but still has to be done, the mid-term period of a Parliament is the best time to take it. So why has it suddenly become a Coalition-breaker?
What is proposed is that the Lords would be made up of 300 senators, four-fifths elected and one-fifth appointed as cross-benchers, for a period of 15 years, with elections every 5 years rotating a third of the membership each time. Obviously one can argue endlessly about some of the details, but that seems as reasonable a proposal as any. So why all the aggro? Most likely it’s because the Tories have always seen the Lords as ‘their’ chamber, one key plank in the power structure by which they can retain their domination of Britain, and a relatively democratic chamber would be at risk of sweeping aside the last bulwark against a socialistic rush towards a more egalitarian country (such as is being put before the French electors today by that ‘normal’ M. Hollande).
But unless Clegg and the LibDems chicken out yet again – nothing is impossible with our Nick – this, irrespective of any such minor matters as the precise details of Lords reform, could actually derail the Coalition. Since this is surfacing alongside government proposals for comprehensive surveillance of the whole nation’s internet use, the killing off of the Green Deal, the Tory Right’s determination to get a referendum on the EU at any cost, plus Lansley’s determination to destroy the country’s most precious institution with regional pay mark-downs now added on, the Lords row couldn’t be better timed. Bring it on!