The Conservative-led coalition government is about to make another costly, unwise and unnecessary policy reversal, though finally a non-budget related one, with The Telegraph reporting that the planned reforms of the House of Lords are going to be shelved, in the face of strong Conservative backbench opposition.
Earlier this year, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg outlined plans to replace appointed peers in the House of Lords with elected senators. The first elections were to be held in 2015 with the elected members of the house serving for 15-year terms.
However, dozens of Conservative MPs and peers expressed their strong opposition to the proposal amid fears it would undermine the supremacy of the Commons.
Downing Street was forced to delay a key vote on the reforms last month to allow further discussion with the rebels. It is thought that Mr Cameron was prepared to water down the reforms to help win over more than 90 Tory MPs.
However, The Daily Telegraph has learnt that this has now failed and the reforms will be scrapped. Downing Street feared that debate over the reforms could drag on for months and alienate the public at a time when ministers should be focused on pulling Britain out of recession.
This is yet another stinging rebuke of David Cameron’s leadership and ability to stamp his authority on his party, and to articulate and then deliver a vision for government. Indeed, in the same article, The Telegraph notes:
The Coalition has been accused of mounting more than 20 about-turns – moves which the Prime Minister has insisted show strong leadership as he rejected pushing ahead with unpopular policies.
There’s no strength in walking back so many elements of the Budget, and other policy and manifesto positions, in the face of opposition or a newly invigorated Labour Party in opposition. It just makes you look weak, and lacking in conviction or any real plan to turn the country around.
It is also a significant setback for those people such as myself who wanted to try to reinvigorate British democracy by bringing to an end the anachronistic setup of the current upper house, and replace it with a more powerful, democratically legitimate body that could act as a check on the “elected dictatorship” of the Commons. If, as expected, the reform plans are now killed, it is unlikely that they will be any appetite to revive them in the near future.
But more importantly, it has potentially very serious consequences for the ongoing survival of the coaltion government, as Isabel Hardman notes in The Spectator’s Coffee House blog:
This triggers that new phase of coalition that Nick Clegg and his colleagues have been warning about: the era of ‘consequences’. Although Conservative ministers have been considering other policies that they could hand to their coalition partners, these will not be enough to appease them: it’s Lords reform or nothing.
How this will play out is fascinating: the main threat is that the Lib Dems will scupper the boundary reforms, but to truly block their passage through parliament would require ministers in Clegg’s party to vote against the legislation. Would those ministers then be sacked? If they were, that’s curtains for the coalition. I’ve asked Number 10 about this before, and to date the response has been ‘that’s a hypothetical question’. Not for much longer: this new phase of coalition is very much uncharted territory, not simply because it heralds a new pattern of relations, but because it’s very difficult to see how the Lib Dems can carry out their ‘consequences’ threat without walking out of the government too.
Our attentions are currently consumed by the fantastic Olympic Games currently taking place in London, but it is certainly starting to look as though we could soon be living in very interesting political times, too.