Several people have asked me to try to explain what happened in Parliament today over reform of the House of Lords. It’s all a bit too complex for Twitter, so I thought I’d stick up a short post here. Disclosure: these are my views, and the wonderful thing about this situation is that there are very few facts, and merely opinions and predictions. If for some reason you want to know what I think about Lords reform in general, I would refer honorable members, senators and strangers to my post here.
First, I’ll try to explain what happened today, then what might happen in the future, and finally who might have won and lost from today. But my key message is this: ignore any media outlet, any triumphant Tory or hand-wringing Lib Dem who tells you that Lords reform died today and that Labour or rebel Tories killed it. Lords reform lives – and is perhaps more likely to actually happen after today than it was before.
What has happened today
As I write this, the Commons is in the last hour of the debate on the second reading of the government’s Lords Reform Bill. Unusually, because of the number of MPs wishing to speak, this has gone over two days. The intention was that at 10pm tonight, there would be two votes. The first of these would be to give the Bill a second reading (i.e. to allow it to proceed to the next stage) – this would, and indeed will, pass easily. All three major parties have three-line whips to vote for it, and I suspect every minority party will also back it. There will be a significant number of Conservative rebels and a small number of Labour rebels, but nothing to threaten the bill.
The second vote would have been on a so-called ‘programme motion’. This is a motion which the government attaches to some bills, particularly those that, like this one, will have their committee stage on the floor of the Commons. It sets out how much time the government is prepared to give to consideration of the bill – in this case, ministers were prepared to give 10 days. It became increasingly clear over the past few days that the government was very likely to lose this vote. Labour announced it would oppose it because it has significant issues with many of the details of the bill (such as term length, the need for a referendum, and the 20% appointed element) – the argument is that ten days would simply not be long enough to guarantee scrutiny of the bill and for all Labour’s amendments to be brought forward. The government argument is that without a programme motion, the bill will clog up the Commons for months to come, with opponents of the bill seeking to talk it out.
This afternoon, when the numbers of Tory MPs proposing to vote against the programme motion and with Labour became clear (now believed to be well in excess of the 70 MPs who signed the public letter against reform), the government decided to withdraw the programme motion, rather than face almost certain defeat. This means there will now be only one vote tonight, on second reading of the bill. This will pass, and the bill will be cleared to move on to committee stage.
What happens next?
We don’t entirely know. Announcing the withdrawal of the programme motion, Leader of the House Sir George Young suggested he might be able to say more when he makes his weekly business statement on Thursday. The government now has the long summer recess (the House rises a week today) to attempt to find a compromise on how to go forward. It is possible that it can find enough compromises or goodies for Tory backbenchers to get an amended programme motion through the Commons when it returns. At this stage, however, Labour says it will not back any programme motion or a ‘guillotine’ (which curtails debate at a pre-decided time). The government will therefore have to convince a large number of its own backbenchers to agree to back such a motion – and any compromises would likely need to be on the actual substance of the bill, rather than simply debate time.
Perhaps a more likely outcome is that the the summer is spent in negotiations through back-channels with Labour. The opposition front bench has been clear today that it does not wish to ‘wreck’ the bill and is committed to it going through, once it has achieved adequate scrutiny. Shadow Leader of the House Angela Eagle today committed Labour to sending the bill to the Lords in good time. What this means is that whilst Labour will not support a pre-emptive programme motion or guillotine, which limits debate time before the debate begins, it will, when it believes the time is right, vote for a so-called closure motion on an amendment or the bill itself. This will serve to end debate, and because of the combined numbers of Labour+Lib Dem+pro-reform Tory MPs, will act as a block on filibustering from Tory backwoodsmen. This means the bill could well take a while to progress, and expect there to be at least one day per week in the Commons to be dedicated to the committee stage of the bill. But as fictional PM Harry Perkins said, “democracy takes time, comrade. Dictatorship is quicker, but more people tend to get shot.” Eventually, this bill will complete its committee stage and will make its way to the Lords, where life gets really interesting. As one Labour MP put it to me today, normally bills leave the Commons in a complete mess, with a mass of badly drafted and hasty amendments. It is the Lords’ job to tidy it up. This time, the Lords are not going to co-operate in that. The Lords Reform Bill has to leave the Commons in law-ready form.
Who has won today?
That’s an impossible question – in all reality, no-one has completely won and no-one has completely lost. But these are my estimates of the scores on the doors:
David Cameron: 5/10 – on one hand, it’s been a bad day for the PM. He’s had to back down in the face of a massive rebellion on his backbenches, and at least one PPS has resigned. He is going to have to do something urgently to rein in the mood of disquiet on his backbenches, not only over Lords reform and the coalition, but over the performance of the government since the budget. On the plus side, however, he has bought himself time on this controversial issue. Lord reform isn’t in the long grass, but it’s in the unmown rough. Cameron now has the summer recess for feelings on his backbenches to simmer down, for some of the more wavering rebels to be bought off, and for a way forward to be worked out. Ending today with a heavy defeat would have been far worse. But one thing is certain: Cameron wishes he’d never put Lords reform in the 2010 manifesto, let alone the coalition agreement.
Ed Miliband: 7/10 – in combination with the Tory rebels, Labour scored a significant win today. Whilst the party would have rather seen the government defeat, but a slightly humiliating withdrawal of the programme motion is a passable second best. Barring some remarkable man management over the summer by Cameron, Labour could well end up in the driving seat of the committee stage of the bill, holding a whip hand over when closure motions occur. That ensures Labour will get to push its own amendments to a vote – and it is far from impossible that on some of them (such as a referendum) will be passed with the help of Tory rebels. On a more tactical note, it gets to clog up the Commons and prevent more damaging bills getting parliamentary time. There is a risk to all this, which is that the narrative being pushed hard by the Lib Dems and the Tory front bench – that Labour has blocked reform – gets traction, and allows Miliband et al to be painted as being anti-reform, coalescing Lib Dems. Miliband needs to be ready to noisily turn on the Tory backwoodsmen when the time comes. It is also possible that the Tory leadership manages to negotiate a generous programme motion with its own backbenches over the summer, and calls Labour’s bluff on it in the autumn.
Nick Clegg: 4/10 – a bad day – Lords reform will get a buffeting ride, and his coalition allies have had to give ground rather humiliatingly to their right – but it could have been worse. In the short term, Clegg doesn’t wake up tomorrow to headlines about a government defeat and the coalition under threat. In the long term, he now has the opportunity over the summer to seek to build a reform package that can attract a cross-party consensus, ironing out the idiocies in this bill. A bill which can command the support of the vast bulk of the House will have far greater integrity when it comes before the Lords, and will give the Commons the upper hand when it comes to the inevitable rounds of ping-pong. If he plays his cards right – and he might well not – Clegg could end today somewhat closer to his goal of Lords reform than he was this morning.