There was genuine, phone-chucking anger in Conservative Campaign Headquarters when their EU referendum bill was killed in the House of Lords on Friday. The Tories publicly accused Labour and the Lib Dems of being “enemies of democracy”; privately that Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg were personally involved in denying the electorate a vote. So much for friendly Coalition politics.
While they certainly have a point, the real focus of Tory ire should not be their political enemies, but rather themselves. Once again they suffer the consequences of the decision by Conservative backbenchers – who should have known better – to break their Coalition agreement with the Lib Dems on Lords reform. The irony would be delicious if it were not such a shame for voters.
Clegg has exacted brutal and deserved revenge on those Tories, first arguably costing them the next election by stymying boundary reform, and now by using the very chamber they want abolished to block the Conservative holy grail of a referendum on Europe. The Tories can moan that this is unfair all they want. They started it and now, with some irony, the Lords they saved have finished it.
The one person I do feel sorry for is James Wharton, the man whose bill it was and who had campaigned so impressively for a referendum. Just 29 years of age, Wharton ignored the archaic arguments of elder and less wise party rebels, actually voting for a wholly elected second chamber. Wharton has been consistent throughout, unlike those Tories who liked the Lords when the Lib Dems were attacking them but don’t like the Lords when they block legislation they support. He also has a majority of 332, so they have hardly done him a favour in that department either.
So was it worth it? 91 Tories defied a three line whip to vote against Clegg’s proposal back in the summer of 2012, with two Tory parliamentary private secretaries sacrificing their jobs in the process.
It was constitutional vandalism, they said. True conservatives would not go against a system that has been in place for so long. An elected second chamber would challenge the supremacy of the Commons. It would bring proportional representation to Westminster. Heaven forbid!
These arguments were nonsense then and look even more ridiculous now. These 91 Tories want us to believe that reforming the Lords is constitutional vandalism but passing a law that seeks to bind a future parliament is not. That if you ever support any kind of radical political change you are not a “true conservative”. That the Commons’ authority would be diminished (yes, because it is clearly so strong when unelected peers override them like they did last week). That improving democracy and accountability is a bad thing.
The guilty 91 will argue that Lords reform was not linked to boundary reform, so they could not know the electoral consequences of their actions. But they are naive in the extreme if they did not think the Lib Dems would hit them where it hurt the most as payback.
If they had swallowed their pride in 2012 and let Lords reform pass, where would we be now? Clegg would have had no reason to stop boundary reform, so going into 2015 the Tories would have found themselves with a hugely greater chance of staying in power. Not only that, a more democratic second chamber would surely have been more open to giving voters a say on Europe. Those 91 Tories who stopped this from happening have only themselves to blame.