Nick Clegg's planned reforms of the House of Lords are likely to dominate the political agenda in 2012, but even if they pass the Commons they're likely to be immediately rejected by the Lords themselves, and nobody really knows just how bitter the fight between the two Houses could become.
Clegg laid out plans in May this year for an 80% elected upper chamber, with the other 20% being appointed by the political parties. In his proposed Bill there would also be a maximum of 12 Church of England bishops. Elections would be held under the Single Transferable Vote system and people would vote for a third of the House at a time, with members serving a single term of 15 years.
Under Clegg’s proposal the primacy of the House of Commons would be maintained, although it’s clear an elected Lords would carry greater authority than at present. Lord Strathclyde, the Tory leader of the House of Lords, said the coalition agreement “committed” the government to producing a draft bill and white paper on House of Lords Reform and that a Joint Committee of both Houses will report on the draft Bill in 2012. However even Lord Strathclyde has appeared rather ambivalent in recent weeks about the Bill, mindful that many of his fellow Tory peers despise the very thought of it.
And although Lord Strathclyde told the Lords that they'd have to wait and see if the reform Bill appears in the Queen's Speech in 2012, time constraints mean the Bill is likely to appear sometime in the spring. Discussions and the inevitable Parliamentary tussle to get it passed through both Houses looks likely to become rancourous. Speaking in the House of Commons just before Christmas, Clegg said “the Government will support this Bill as they support any Bill. That is in the coalition agreement: there is an unambiguous commitment that we will pursue this Bill as forcefully as we can.”
John Stevenson, Conservative MP for Carlisle who is a member of the Joint Committee set up to discuss the reforms, was hopeful that change could take place without causing dissent in Parliament.
“On balance, I think all party members are committed to some kind of reform on the Lords, so there is a reasonable chance of the Bill passing,” he said. He doesn’t think the reform Bill will affect other government business from going through in the New Year “because all parties are committed to reform”.
But others have argued that the House of Lords reforms will cause huge tensions in 2012, with many expecting the Lords to not go down without a fight. Lord Richard, who was Labour MP for Barons Court in the 60s, thinks that if the Commons force through their Bill and the Lords are attached to their “present position” then “it will make it more difficult to get other Bills through in 2012”.
The Labour MP said that while most Lords were committed to reform, a majority would not be in favour of Clegg’s proposal for a “predominantly” elected chamber. “I think if the Bill remains as it is there will be pretty intense constitutional turmoil on the way,” he said.
His fellow peer, Lord Geoffrey Howe, who was Foreign Secretary to Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, expressed a similar opinion saying: "The Bill will cause problems between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The strange thing is that all three party leaders have declared themselves in favour of transforming the Lords but, when it comes to asking them why, they cannot point to any singe fault that would be corrected or improved by change,” he said.
Lord Richard predicted that a delay will take place after the Bill is first proposed, because the Lords will reject it - after all turkeys aren’t going to vote for Christmas. Then the Labour Lord believes everything will come down to “timing”.
“If they don’t get the Bill sorted by the next session then they will run out of time before the next general election,” he said.
Lord Howe agrees: “If proposals are introduced next year and they involve elected members then they will be rejected by the House of Lords. It is unlikely the Conservative government would then introduce the bill again next year. They wouldn’t want their last two terms to be dominated by that”.
However Clegg seems fairly unequivocal about his determination to get the reforms through, and has made it clear that if the Lords reject the Bill, he will seek to use the nuclear option of the Parliament Act 1911.
Using this Act to over-ride the Lords is a convoluted process. The Commons can’t just invoke the act as soon as they realise MPs are at odds with the Lords. At least a year has to pass between the initial deadlock, and at least one Queen’s Speech has to be delivered in that time, before the Act can be invoked. If the Commons drags its feet on passing the Bill, it could simply fail because of a lack of Parliamentary time, because Bills can't be carried over between general elections.
The question for Cameron is whether he wants to expend political capital on the issue, given many Tory MPs don’t really want it. If Lords Richards is correct, and the Lords start to misbehave on other legislation because they're upset with their own demise, political calculations begin to come into play. Cameron could easily decide that Lords reform should be sacrificed in order to get other legislation through Parliament. And perhaps we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Some Tories aren’t even sure the reforms will clear the Commons.
A senior Conservative MP, who didn’t want to be named, told HuffPost UK there was little appetite among Tories for the proposals, and many might even defy the whip: “It could well struggle to get a second reading in the Commons, on the assumption that the Labour party opposes it, to make mischief,” the MP said.
“If it does get a second reading it will be without a resounding majority, and that makes it very difficult to use the Parliament Act because it lacks significant support in the Commons itself.
“I would hedge my bets on a very big number of colleagues in the Commons defying the whip and voting against it. There are many, many colleagues who think an elected upper chamber is a very bad idea, and wouldn’t feel able to support it. I don’t think it’s at all far-fetched.”
Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems often say they feel they're having a meaningful influence on the government's agenda. But they didn't get AV and many privately wonder whether any of their policies are truly distinctive. The Lib Dems need Lords reform, and many Tories don't see the point. Expect fireworks.