Every week when Parliament is in session the executive of the 1922 backbenchers committee meets to decide what to tell the Prime Minister about backbench attitudes and reactions to the government’s business. The full 1922 Committee also meets every Wednesday, where any Conservative MP can attend, and voice any criticism in the privacy of the meeting they wish.
I have never before written about these meetings. They are best kept private. Sometimes they are unremarkable. Sometimes they express support for a Minister or a policy. Sometimes we summon a Minister to get a progress report or home in on problems that matter to us. The Chancellor comes for a consultation meeting with us before a budget when he is forming his measures. He comes after budget to report. The Prime Minister comes once a term to tell us how he sees things and to take our questions. Sometimes these meetings send tough messages, wanting change to what the government is doing or how it is behaving.
On Thursday, as some of you will have seen from widespread press coverage, there was an extraordinary meeting of the 1922 Committee to discuss government plans to reform the House of Lords in the next session. It was billed as extraordinary because it was on a different day, in addition to the usual weekly meeting, and was designed to handle just the one main topic. Someone present must have decided to ignore the normal confidentiality and tell the press about some of it. It turned out to be extraordinary in more ways than one.
It became clear that Conservative MPs do not want any Bill on Lords reform in the next Queen’s speech. The Conservative party, like all the main parties, is divided over how to reform the Lords. Some want an all elected second chamber. Some want a hybrid chamber , with some elected and some selected, like the Bishops. Some want selected peers but wish to see reform of length of service, retirement dates, reduction in numbers and other changes. Some want it left alone, thinking it is fine as it is.
However, last week consensus broke out. Practically all decided that a Bill on Lords reform this year would be wrong. At a time of major economic crisis in Euroland,with the need to battle down the deficit at home and complete major reforms of welfare and public service, there was no appetite to open a new front by taking on the Lords. All reported a complete lack of interest from constituents in this cause. Many thought the politicians would look even more out of touch if they went ahead with a Westminster issue at such a time. How would it look to be discussing new high pay and allowances for Senators, replacing much cheaper current arrangements, when the debate is meant to be about cutting public spending?
I now read that this “rebellion” had some official stimulus. If there were, it was well hidden. None of the colleagues I spoke to had been asked to be present. None had been given the wink that this was something they were allowed to rebel about. It seemed that many MPs for varying reasons had decided they needed to warn the government now,before they put such a Bill in the Queen’s Speech, that its passage would be troubled at best, and probably dependent on Labour votes.
Many feel that such a major constitutional change would warrant a referendum. After all, if voting systems and elected Mayors qualify for a referendum then so surely should major Lords reform. Labour too would want to vote for such a referendum. Many Conservatives would wish to add that if we can have yet another constitutional referendum on something we don’t want to change, could we not at the same time have one on something we do wish to change, our relationship with the EU? There is concern that the Bill may include electing the Lords by a system of proportional voting, so soon after the public decisively rejected such a voting system for the Commons. What part of “No” did they not understand?
I hope the government is wise, and grasps that this is a topic which needs further discussion and thought. It might be a good idea to seek a consensus first on what the Lords is for, before moving to thinking about how to choose its members. Now is not the time to legislate. I have never seen the Conservative Parliamentary party so at variance with its front bench on a single issue.