Nick Clegg is either "ignorant" of how Britain's constitution works or he thinks Tory MPs are "too stupid" to notice that he is trying to sneak proportional representation through the back door of Lords reform, a Conservative MP has said.
Eleanor Laing, the Epping Forest MP and a member of the joint committee on Lords reform, said that the real reason the deputy prime minister wanted a reformed House of Lords was to make up for the fact that he failed to convince the public to vote in favour of a change to the electoral system for MPs.
Speaking to The Huffington Post UK, Laing said the Lib Dems were trying to bypass the public by opposing a referendum.
"I would say that a massive number of Tory MPs are against this Bill - as this Bill doesn't do what it says it's going to do. It doesn't, in Nick Clegg's words, introduce a 'smidgeon of democracy' to the upper House," she said.
"That's not what it does. If Nick Clegg thinks that is what it does either he is ignorant of the way in which our constitutional and democratic system works or he thinks we're all too stupid to notice what he's really doing."
"What he is really doing is trying to introduce PR in the Lords because he didn't get it in the Commons."
Under the proposals in the Draft Bill on Lords Reform developed by Clegg, members of the new second chamber would be elected by the proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV) system.
"Now the Liberal Democrats want to bring in proportional representation in the House of Lords, not in the House of Commons where they failed to do it, but they say we can't have a referendum on this but we can have a referendum on whether there should be a mayor for Birmingham," Laing said.
She added: "For goodness sake, we should have one on major reform of parliament."
Laing, who is also a member of the Commons political and constitutional reform committee, warned that an elected House of Lords would end up in gridlock leaving it up to judges to decide which House was right.
"Can you imagine if there is a standoff between the Lords and the Commons and the matter goes to court and we'd end up having judges decide the big political issues of the day? That is not democracy," she said.
Laing's comments came as the joint committee on Lords reform of which she is a member published its report into the coalition's plans.
The committee recommended that there be a referendum on a 80% elected 450 member chamber.
Nick Clegg has argued that there is no need for a referendum as all three main political parties supported reform in their manifestos.
However David Cameron left the door open for a u-turn on that decision when he refused to rule out a public vote.
Eleanor Laing (Con, Epping Forest) speaks to HuffPostUK
HuffPost: Am I right in thinking that your primary concern is that this report would not look at how the Commons and the Lords would interact once the reforms would go through?
Eleanor Laing: That's correct. The problem with the government proposals is there is an unbridgeable gap between the draft Bill as it stands, and maintaing the primary of the House of Commons. Maintaining the primacy of the House of Commons is not about the vanity of MPs, it's about the direct line of accountability between the people and the elected representatives. If you have two sets of elected representatives, the line is at best blurred and at worst erased.
HuffPost: Would you say Mark Harper and Nick Clegg's argument - that the Parliament Act is perfectly capable of doing that function in an elected Lords scenario - is just untenable?
Laing: It is untenable. We took a lot of evidence on this matter and yes, there are legal opinions on one side and there are legal opinions on the other side. The fact is if you have to decide who is right on a legal opinion, the matter has to go to court.
Can you imagine if there is a standoff between the Lords and the Commons and the matter goes to court and we'd end up having judges decide the big political issues of the day? That is not democracy!
HuffPost: I think it's fair to say you were a dissenting voice on the committee, looking at the divisions. How was it being on the committee?
Laing: It was an excellent committee. Lord Richard did a very good job keeping in order 25 vociferous people with very strong views.
HuffPost: I can see that. I think the issue of the referendum is the one that is going to dominate this debate from this report. Do you think there should be a referendum?
Laing: There should be a referendum because this is major constitutional reform. We had a referendum last year on proportional representation, and the people were decisively against it. Now the Liberal Democrats want to bring in Proportional Representation in the House of Lords, not in the House of Commons where they failed to do it, but they say we can't have a referendum on this. We can have a referendum on whether there should be a mayor for Birmingham. Then for goodness sake, we should have one on major reform of Parliament!
HuffPost: The reports from last week were that there are very few Tory MPs who support the House of Lords bill... I think they're pretty in dispute of it - with only one member of the 1922 committee who was in favour of it. Do you think Tory backbenchers are unsupportive of the draft bill as it stands or unsupportive of an elected Lords in general?
Laing: I can't comment on the 1922 committee of course because that happens behind closed doors. But speaking to my colleagues I know a few people - only a few who are in favour of an elected House of Lords. I would say that a massive number of Tory MPs are against this Bill - as this Bill doesn't do what it says it's going to do. It doesn't, in Nick Clegg's words, introduce a 'smidgeon of democracy' to the upper house. That's not what it does. If Nick Clegg thinks that is what it does, either he is ignorant of the way in which our constitutional and democratic system works, or he thinks we're all too stupid to notice what he's really doing.
HuffPost: So what is he really doing?
Laing: What he is really doing is trying to introduce PR in the Lords because he didn't get it in the Commons. Most Conservative MPs want to see the House of Lords being reformed. Of course it needs to be reformed, it needs to be made smaller, it needs a retirement age. We need hereditary peers to stop being appointed.
We need a way of basically kicking out those who have done something wrong. That sort of reform should go ahead immediately. That would get consensus, that would get total support in the country as well as in Parliament .
What we don't need to create is another House of Commons with hundreds of professional politicians paid for by the taxpayer. I bet you if we did have a referendum, that people would vote against that.
HuffPost: Most Tories - you think most people - would be quite happy for the Lords to remain appointed but for some of the things that allow it to be slightly reckless in its autonomy to be watered down...?
Laing: Actually there are many ways that this could be taken forward. Many other ways in which a degree of democracy coud be introduced to the House of Lords while maintaining the primacy of the House of Commons. For example, my colleague Oliver Heald has published under the auspices of the Society of Conservative Lawyers a pamphlet about indirect election. It's a really good idea, I would support that.
I'm in favour of bringing the House of Lords into the 21st century and so are most Conservative MPs, but not creating another House of Commons that gives Nick Clegg his Proportional Representation at the other end of parliament.
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