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Britain’s Conservative/Liberal Democrat government faced a humiliating setback on July 10 when ministers had to cancel a key vote on their flagship plans to reform the House of Lords.
The government wants to replace the present appointed chamber with a chamber whose members are 80 percent elected/20 percent appointed. The legislation is widely seen as the Liberal Democrats’ baby, and it is bitterly resented by many backbench Conservative MPs. Over the last few weeks, more and more Conservative MPs have announced their intention to vote against the bill, and the number of rebels eventually reached 100.
The Labour opposition has committed itself to voting for the bill’s second reading, which is when the Commons endorses the general principles behind the legislation. Because the government controls the timetable in the Commons, a vote on second reading is usually followed by a ‘program motion’ that sets time limits for the remaining legislative stages. But Labour objected to the amount of time that the government proposed to allocate to the bill, and the party decided to instruct its MPs to vote against the program motion.
Without Labor’s support, it seemed highly unlikely that the program motion would pass. In the absence of a timetable, opponents of the bill would be able to filibuster it. Back in 1968, an earlier attempt at House of Lords reform foundered because of just such a filibuster.
The government whips must have gotten spooked, for when the Commons began the second day of the debate on second reading, the Leader of the House, Sir George Young, announced that the program motion had been withdrawn. “For Lords reform to progress, it needs those who support reform to vote for reform and to vote for that reform to make progress through this House. It is clear that the Opposition are not prepared to do that, so we will not move the program motion tonight.”
“We remain committed to making progress on Lords reform, and with second reading behind us we will then consider how best to take this agenda forward and how best to secure progress through the House for reforms that have the backing of this House,” he continued.
In the absence of a program motion, the bill will be in legislative limbo even if it receives a second reading. The government leadership in the Commons face a dicey situation. Finding a timetable that will please Labour could be difficult, but if they decide to go ahead and commit the bill to a Committee of the Whole House without any sort of time limits, it is almost certain that rebel Conservative MPs will do their best to filibuster it. Newspapers are already reporting that the rebels have drawn up extensive plans to table wrecking amendments and fight any subsequent attempts to curtail debate.
If the House of Lords Reform Bill ultimately fails, the coalition will be placed under incredible strain. Bad blood between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats seems to be growing by the week, and many Liberal Democrats would probably see the bill’s loss as a Conservative betrayal. There are already rumblings that, if there is no Lords reform, the Liberal Democrats will retaliate by blocking forthcoming boundary changes that could help the Conservatives at the next election. If the coalition descended to that level of infighting, it is hard to see how it could continue until the next scheduled election in May 2015.