Wednesday, 11 July 2012

House of Lords reform? Don't hold your breath

Last night's Parliamentary debacle over House of Lords reform is entirely unsurprising to anyone who's been paying attention (wake up there at the back).

Not only had this outcome been long predicted (though it had). To us historians, the whole rigmarole looks like a re-tread of crises we've had before. Most vividly, it recalls the Labour Government's attempt to force through Lords reform in 1968-69, talked out by an unholy alliance of right- and left-wingers, uniting Michael Foot and Enoch Powell, and ultimately abandoned unloved on April Fool's Day 1969.

What happened then? Er, well, the Government benches were divided between compromisers and root-and-branch reformers. The Opposition smelt an opportunity. Common cause was made among implacable foes across the House of Commons chamber. And the administration of the day lost its business.

Sound familiar, anyone?

There are lots of reasons for this slow-motion replay of debates we've in 1909-11, in the 1940s, in the 1960s and then again under New Labour. It's just a really emotive subject for the political classes - though not, I think, the public. It touches on the nature of the constitution and the powers of the Commons - both subjects close to MPs' hearts. It's an area where there can be so many shades of opinion - 49% elected? 51% elected? 60%? 80%? 100% - that it's almost impossible to reach agreement. So it's proving now, despite the inherent worthiness of electing your legislators.

Meanwhile, last night's retreat really hurts this administration. Not only does it mean that the Coalition itself is looking increasingly rocky (more of this tomorrow). But Ministers now face weeks of talking, and months of gumming up the Government's business - as the Maastrict rebels managed to do in 1992-93.If they can't get a programme motion in the autumn - and there's absolutely no reason why they should - then they probably won't bother, to the Liberal Democrats fury.

And that's even before Nick Clegg's Bill gets to the House of Lords, who will predictably savage the whole project. Or to the public in any referendum that the rebels force out of the Government (which will almost certainly be lost). Both have the capacity to obliterate the idea.

House of Lords reform? Don't hold your breath (or waste it either).

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