Where would we be now if Tory rebels hadn’t blocked Lords reform?

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.


About Alex Wickham

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Alex Wickham is a reporter at the Guido Fawkes blog, as well as contributor to The Sun on Sunday. He is the political editor of TrendingCentral.com.

  • Leo McKinstry

    Excellent article, Alex. It is absurd to have an unelected, unaccountable institution like the House of Lords in a supposedly democratic country like ours. It is telling that the House is now the second largest legislative chamber in the world – after that other impressively democratic body, the Chinese politburo.

  • CronFlakes

    Didn’t the Lords reform block happen due to LDs throwing their toys because they didn’t get AV? … yet another thing where Conservatives shot themselves in the foot now UKIP are splitting votes (although that may turn out to be moot now that ukip are after labour voters)

  • Will Rees

    Lord Kerr who helped write the current procedural rules for the EU explained in the Lords debate that what Cameron wanted to do couldn’t be done – no way of renegotiating before a 2017 referendum, but it doesn’t fit with the media and narrow UK political narrative. Get your collective heads out of your arse, there is a referendum coming, in about 2018-19 because of a treaty change and its Protocol No 9 Associate membership, for states not in the EUro will be a train crash for the UK, the government by fax so sneered at by the major parties.

    We have CAT 3 capable airliners, a fucking tunnel and the internet – the whole Europe cut off by fog bullshit doesn’t wash anymore.

  • Carvetii

    Absolutely. However, the lib dems are permanently aggrieved, duplicitous weasels, so they’d have just found some other excuse to chuck their toys out of the pram.
    My understanding is that the Lords is there to go through potential legislation with a view to returning poorly written or ill-thought out laws (much of what New Labour cobbled together in fact), rather than being a political body. Maybe this is an old fashioned view of things..

  • Caligula

    The House of Lords needs reforming but Clegg’s proposal was simply a jobs for the boys political fix that left us in a situation not far removed from the present carbuncle on the face of British democracy.

    Get rid of the party hacks, the bishops, the hereditary anachronisms, the fraudsters, the perjurers, the sex pests and the rest of them. Then establish a Senate of around a hundred members (perhaps two elected per county), which will have the democratic legitimacy to genuinely hold both the executive and the Commons to account.

  • ScaryBiscuits

    Perhaps Alex should check his facts. There was nothing in the coalition agreement saying that the Conservatives would agree to Lords reform, merely that they would bring forward proposals. And when was even this agreed by Conservative backbenchers or the people who knocked on doors getting them elected?
    Alex’s weakest points is when he says objections to Clegg’s reforms are nonsense. What’s that about when you resort to abuse, you’ve lost the argument? He fails to realise that not all Conservatives want Cameron in power at all costs.

  • Dogzzz

    The tories lived up to their end of the bargain on allowing a review of Lord’s reform and of holding a referendum on AV in return for boundary reform. The treacherous Lib Dems broke their own bargain, when they put forward unworkable proposals, which would not have been implemented yet, thus making no difference to the Lord’s profoundly anti-democratic binning of the EU referendum bill.

  • http://www.biologymad.com/ HD2

    They didn’t: Clegg’s proposals were insane, unwelcome, and unworkable.

    The solution is bloody obvious to all but the most stubborn and troughing: return to HoL to the same position it was in before Tony Blair’s meddling destroyed its credibility.

    Just repeal his 1998 HoL reform Act and ‘de-noble’ any and every Life Peer created since then, before starting with a clean sheet and re-appointing all those with genuine skills and scrapping all super-antiquated failed politicians – of ALL parties.

  • Dogzzz

    “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.”

    The guilty 91 will rightly 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 break their agreement on boundary reforms and act as childish, disloyal treacherous brats as payback.

    There, fixed that for you.

  • ScaryBiscuits

    There is a way of negotiating before a referendum. Simply write a letter invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. If that’s too straightforward for you, then write a letter giving notice of the possibility. You’re right that associate membership would be a disaster, so the choice before us in upcoming referendum will be nice and simple: in or out?
    The internet may have brought Europe closer but we’re still cut off by their general refusal to buy our goods and services (despite our eagerness to buy theirs) an urge for democracy and fairness which simply isn’t shared by the more authoritarian and elitist traditions of the continent, which go back to Roman times. The internet, by contrast, has made it much simpler to trade with the Far East, the US and all our friends around the world and, boy, are they are lot more interesting (except perhaps for holidays) than moribund, continental Europe.

  • ScaryBiscuits

    What you don’t realise is that many Conservatives are not desperate to keep Cameron in power at any cost, and this was one cost too high. We failed to support Dave and Nick’s madcap HoL reform, not naively but fully cognisant that it could have serious implications (and some hoping it would have been a lot more severe) although it’s not clear that the LibDems going back on their word and acting as childish, disloyal, treacherous brats is payback or just how they are anyway.

  • Will Rees

    Article 50 would we have decided to leave lets discuss future terms of how we deal with each other, which is not what Cameron was talking up. He wanted to change our relationship while still inside and then put it to referendum all by 2017, which is not-doable, and merely a short term gimmick ahead of the EUros (I suspect you know that) that would unravel very quickly.

    I think you missed my point about Europe cut off by fog, we haven’t been a ultra dominant world power for a century, and everything we do has to be done in concert. The internet enables joe public to grasp what is going on with the other players and how that will impact on how the game is played here. For Westminster and the reporters based there to carry on as if everything is doable from within their little bubble is a Little Englandery mindset they smear UKIP with.

    David Cameron promised the moon on a stick, the Lords said nope. A Changed Lords that let Cameron keep promising, still wouldn’t have got you the moon.

  • ScaryBiscuits

    ‘Europe cut off by fog’ is, like much EU propaganda, apocryphal rather than true and is more commonly ‘fog in Channel- continent cut-off’.
    However, the reason it was funny in the 1930s when it was commonly cited was not that the UK was a world power (and therefore the continent didn’t matter) but that the continent was of little consequence to the UK economically or culturally – as a sea-faring nation that was never as effectively Romanised as central Europe, we have traditionally been much more successful trading far away. Official figures today cite just under 49% of our foreign trade being with Europe today but if you ignore imports, oil (which we can sell anywhere) and somewhat suspicious exports to the low countries (which are either VAT fraud or actually transhipments to the rest of the world), the economic unimportance of the continent isn’t much different than it was 100 years ago. And, despite all the impositions of the so-called internal market, it’s not only small but declining, whereas trade with the rest of the world is growing strongly.
    I also disagree with you that the internet has made ordinary people more aware of what was going on. Today’s press is far more docile that it was 100 years ago and the average Briton is less educated and less interested. Doing things ‘in concert’ is no more imperative than it was in 1930 (or indeed than it was when God scattered the people of Babel). Leaving the EU is doable, not (of course) as Cameron/Hague would have us believe, and we would prosper more outside it.

  • Tony_E

    That’s what the Parliament acts are for – the upper house should be largely impotent in the face of a determined Commons.

    The problem is that the coalition is divided, there is no majority in the HofC, so therefore the Parliament act cannot be used.

  • Taminavalu

    The Tory 91 are, not to put too fine a point on it, retards.

  • MrDDavies

    Labour spent 100 years whining about the House of Lords yet failed to make it democratic during the 13 years they held sway.

  • Owen_Morgan

    Wickham is a complete merchant. Does he really think Clegg would have accepted boundary reform, regardless of the offerings made by the ever-obliging Cameron?

  • bob

    what about the The House of Lords Act 1999, did that make less undemocratic

  • MrDDavies

    Watch yer mouth, I’m no tory.