David Cameron is facing fresh accusations of ‘arrogance’ after it emerged the Government is set to kill off plans to give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote in the EU referendum.
Ahead of a crunch Commons vote on Tuesday, it emerged that a House of Lords plan to extend the franchise to under-18s could be stymied because it involves spending money that can only be approved by the Commons.
Unlike the Commons - where the Conservatives have a working majority of 16 - the House of Lords has an in-built anti-Tory majority, with Labour and Liberal Democrat peers outnumbering the Tories.
But in a move that raises fresh tensions between Downing Street and peers, the Lords amendment on teenage votes has now been deemed one of ‘financial privilege’.
Judging from Parliament's Order Paper, it appears that the office of the Speaker of the Commons has decided that the bill would incur costs that can only be decided by the Commons.
If a bill is deemed a ‘money resolution’, the House of Lords has no power to block or veto it. According to Parliamentary convention, the Lords does not press a matter to a further vote once a money resolution is applied.
The Speaker's office told HuffPost UK that the decision to designate any Lords amendment as 'financial' was taken by the Speaker on the advice of the Clerk of Legislation. The Government is not involved in the process, they said.
A senior Government source also insisted that the decision lay solely with the Speaker's office and was in line with normal practice. "With a vote as important as this [the EU referendum], it's important to use the same franchise as the gold standard of a general election," they said.
But one Labour source in the Lords was suspicious, telling HuffPost UK: “It shows how desperate they are, if they can’t play by the normal rules.
"It’s a back-of-the-fag-packet stuff and reveals their arrogance because the Lords is the one place where they are properly scrutinised.
“It’s aimed at frightening off some crossbenchers. We will look for alternative ways of keeping the issue going.”
Another party source claimed that the Government's firm line on the issue was "payback time" for the Lords for its role in forcing George Osborne to back down on his tax credits cuts package.
The Vote Leave campaign has backed the idea of giving 16- and 17-year-olds the vote in the EU referendum, partly because it believes that youngsters are open to Brexit.
Some Eurosceptics also believe the change could delay the legislation and allow more time to build up the 'Leave' campaign.
One anti-EU source said: "The Government are trying to turn the matter into a constitutional question, rather than a debate on substance."
The House of Lords are using their in-built anti-Tory majority
Extending the franchise could delay the whole process by at least six months as teenagers have to be put on the electoral register, though some in Government believe the delay could last as long as a year.
Mr Cameron has pledged to hold the referendum by the end of 2017, but No.10 wants the flexibility to hold one as early as next June or September 2016.
Ministers are determined to exact their revenge over the tax credits humiliation with a review of the Lords' powers by former leader Lord Strathclyde.
The Financial Times reported on Monday that one option considered by the review is an end to the Upper House's abiility to block secondary legislation.
The Government was braced for a protracted battle of Parliamentary 'ping pong', where a bill bounces between the Commons and Lords until one of them backs down.
The Commons is expected to overturn the Lords defeat tomorrow, but ministers had faced a further defeat on the penultimate day before the Christmas recess next week.
It is possible that the row will force another bitter showdown on December 17, when the Commons is due to rise for its Christmas break. If the Lords comes up with a different amendment, with the same effect, ministers may be forced to try to deem that 'financial' too - and keep MPs back for the votes.
Labour's Shadow Foreign Minister Pat McFadden said: "Financial privilege was never raised during the Scottish referendum where 16 and 17 year olds successfully took part nor as a reason not to give the Welsh Assembly powers to extend the franchise to young people there.
“This important issue of policy should not become wrapped up in the Government’s wider campaign to neuter the House of Lords. Rather than hiding behind this constitutional device, Ministers should spell out why they believe it is wrong for 16 and 17 year olds to have a say over their own country’s future.”
Tim Farron, Lib Dem leader
Labour's leader in the Lords, Baroness Smith said: "This government does not like being challenged or held to account.
“The Strathclyde Review was clearly an over-reaction to the Lords vote on tax credits but even in its own terms the focus was on clarifying Peers powers over financial measures.
"It appears now however, that the government intends to use the review as a Trojan Horse for closing down wider parliamentary scrutiny of any secondary legislation – while openly using the latter to ram home contentious policies."
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said: "The Tories claim to be the party of responsibility; yet they will not give 16 and 17 year olds the chance to take responsibility for potentially the biggest decision in their lifetime."
"It is frankly a scandal and shows the utter hubris of the Prime Minister and his clique. They do not like people disagreeing with them and are now trying to find ways to shun debate and scrutiny.”