According to the Government’s briefing, we are expecting a guillotine motion to be tabled tonight for voting tomorrow. This will determine whether or not the remaining debate on the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill will be brought to an end.
This would be a massive step for the Lords. I may not have been in the House for very long but it will be an extraordinary attack on the principle of self regulation that defines the Chamber. Instead of the Lords themselves deciding who should speak and for how long, that power will be taken by the Government for the first time. They will seek to use their unique voting strength to steam roller this through.
They will attempt to argue that this is an isolated case and they’ve been forced into it by the lack of self discipline by Labour peers. They will point the finger at ex-Labour MPs debating through the night.
I’m not saying every speech has been perfectly judged but this is a fight of the Government’s own choosing and is not an excuse for permanently changing the character of the House of Lords.
The Bill, unlike other constitutional changes, had no white paper and no pre-legislative scrutiny. No chance to debate the issues in advance and try to achieve consensus. By anyone’s judgement changing the electoral system to the House of Commons is a massive change. It should have had scrutiny over time and its own bill. If it had, then it would now be on the statute book and we’d be campaigning on whether or not to have AV.
But for political reasons – to get backbench Tory support -it was bolted together with the other change, to reduce the number of MPs and remove public enquiries from constituency boundary reviews. Just as big a change, and many more detailed issues to consider.
And as we have debated it in the Lords I detect more MPs in the Commons, on all sides, getting cold feet about the implications of reviewing every constituency every Parliament, and of reducing the number by 50 before the next election. The implications for the Government’s whips will be disastrous as Tories and Libdems absent themselves from Westminster to fight amongst themselves for the reduced number of safe seats.
The Government is desperate to get both and to do so in time for a May 5th referendum. I genuinely don’t see why they want to bind us to that date. The Lords have already amended the bill so that it could be any date before October 31st – and my judgement is that a yes vote is more likely later in the year with more time to make the case.
But these are all the issues we’ve been debating on the Bill. A guillotine motion is a bigger debate. The Government is wanting to impose its will on the Lords, just because it wants a referendum on May 5th and is unwilling to do a deal to protect that date.
There are other choices. Split the Bill. Hold the referendum on another day. Compromise and allow an independent body decide the number of MPs, with some right of the public to be heard if it disagrees with the Boundary Commission. Compromise has always been the way before, as the Labour Government did to get rid of hereditary peers.
But no, they want a permanent change to the relationship between the revising chamber and the Government. Having packed Parliament with more unelected Peers they are hoping to push through this change so they can reduce the number of elected MPs. To defeat the guillotine we need near unanimity from the cross benches and a few rebels on the Government side.
We’ll see. Hopefully we’ll have a successful compromise instead. Finger crossed.