A setback on constitutional reform would be a blow to Lib Dems, but it was not the key aspect of the coalition agreement to voters
News that David Cameron may be unable to persuade almost half of his “non-payroll” MPs to back the government’s bill for Lords reform may signal the latest defeat in the 100-year war to establish the “popular” principle for membership of the House of Lords that was forecast in the 1911 legislation.
The most recent battles have wrongly focused on arguments about the “supremacy” of the House of Commons over the Lords. They should have focused more on increasing the accountability of the executive to parliament and how elected lords would strengthen parliament’s position in a system where there are too few “checks and balances” over what governments can get away with.
In discussing the coalition agreement last year, a leading Conservative minister told me when we spoke about the proposed constituency boundary reviews how he felt that Liberal Democrats “underestimated the progress that the Conservatives had made in going for a largely elected House of Lords using the Lib Dems’ preferred system of proportional representation”.
Electing the largest element in the Lords should not have been such a hard step for the Conservatives. It has been their policy for the last 10 years and the commitment could not have been clearer in the Queen’s speech that followed the general election (even if the wording of the coalition agreement allowed for some sophistry by opponents of reform).
A simple analysis of Conservative rebels shows that perhaps half of them might like to be sitting on the red leather benches of the House of Lords in the not-too-distant future as they may be nearing the end of their Commons careers, either on the grounds of their age or on the basis that boundary changes may deprive them of their seats on the green leather benches.
Some of the other Conservative “rebels” on Lords reform are more generally opposed to Cameron’s leadership and the coalition, blaming their leader for failing to win a clear majority in 2010 and failing to pursue the more populist eurosceptic and anti-immigrant positions of his predecessors (who were actually much less successful in general election terms).
Failure to deliver on the most important aspects of constitutional reform would, of course, be a bitter blow to Liberal Democrats. But the party will also recognise that the constitutional package within the coalition agreement was not the most important aspect of it to the voters, nor was it nearly as important as the state of the economy as a reason for the decision to provide the country with a stable government.
The constitutional package within the coalition agreement can probably be seen as a discrete part of it and failure to deliver on any or all of it will not threaten the coalition. But if the Lords is not to be given more legitimacy, then the case for reducing the number of MPs (and increasing the proportion of the payroll vote in the Commons) will also be weakened. Perhaps this is what some of the Conservative rebels are hoping for.