Clegg sets himself against a Lords referendum

It will be hard for the Lib Dem leader to argue that the people should be denied a say.

The defeat of electoral reform a year ago means that Nick Clegg is determined to secure reform of the House of Lords in this parliament. Clegg needs at least one defining constitutional change to persuade his party that the coalition has been worth it. Indeed, he recently heightened the stakes by suggesting that the Lib Dems could vote down the proposed boundary changes if the Tory backwoodsmen veto Lords reform.

The Queen's Speech in May will contain a bill proposing the creation of a new second chamber in which 80 per cent of members are elected and 20 per cent appointed. But Clegg now faces a further obstacle to reform. A joint committee of MPs and peers has unexpectedly called for a national referendum to be held on the proposed changes. Neither of the coalition parties supports a referendum but Labour, however, does. The shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan commented yesterday:

The public should have the final say on major constitutional reform, a position the Tory-led Government followed with the referendum on the alternative vote, and its votes in towns and cities for directly elected mayors.

Today's Independent reports that Clegg will oppose a referendum [which would delay and possibly prevent reform] on the grounds that all three of the main parties advocated Lords reform in their general election manifestos. But Labour will point to the fact that it also backed a referendum in 2010. Until recently, the British electorate had little experience of referenda. The AV referendum was only the second to be held on a national level [the first was the vote on EU membership in 1975]. But that vote - and those forthcoming on directly-elected mayors - has set a precedent. Once the possibility of a referendum is raised, it is hard to argue that the people should be denied a say. That is the challenge Clegg now faces.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is determined to secure reform of the House of Lords. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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“It was like a religious ceremony”: What happened at Big Ben’s final bong?

Both inside and outside Parliament, people gathered to hear the clock’s final midday chime before undergoing repairs.

“It’s just hacks everywhere,” a photographer sighs, jamming his lens through a gap in Parliament’s railings to try and get a closer look.

New Palace Yard, Parliament’s courtyard directly below Big Ben, is filling with amused-looking journalists, waiting for the MPs who have promised to hold a “silent vigil”, heads bowed, to mark Big Ben’s final chime before four years of silence while the tower’s repaired.

About four of them turn up. Two by accident.

It’s five minutes to twelve. Tourists are gathering outside Westminster Tube, as tourists do best. A bigger crowd fills Parliament Square. More people than expected congregate outside, even if it’s the opposite within the Palace. The world and his phone are gazing up at the sad, resigned clock face.


“It’s quite controversial, isn’t it?” one elderly woman in an anorak asks her friend. They shrug and walk off. “Do you know what is this?” an Italian tourist politely asks the tiny press pack, gesturing to the courtyard. No one replies. It’s a good question.

“This is the last time,” says another tourist, elated, Instagram-poised.

“DING DONG DING DONG,” the old bell begins.

Heads down, phones up.


It finishes the on-the-hour tune for the last time, and then gives its much-anticipated resignation statement:

“BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.”

Applause, cheers, and even some tears.


But while the silly-seasoned journalists snigger, the crowd is enthusiastic.

“It’s quite emotional,” says David Lear, a 52-year-old carer from Essex, who came up to London today with his work and waited 45 minutes beneath Big Ben to hear it chime.

He feels “very, very sad” that the bell is falling silent, and finds the MPs’ vigil respectful. “I think lots of people feel quite strongly about it. I don’t know why they’re doing it. During the war it carries on, and then they turn it off for a health and safety reason.”

“I don’t know why they can’t have some speakers half way down it and just play the chime,” he adds. “So many tourists come especially to listen to the chime, they gather round here, getting ready for it to go – and they’re going to switch it off. It’s crazy.”

Indeed, most of the surrounding crowd appears to be made up of tourists. “I think that it was gorgeous, because I’ve never heard him,” smiles Cora, an 18-year-old German tourist. “It was a great experience.”

An Australian couple in their sixties called Jane and Gary are visiting London for a week. “It was like a religious ceremony, everybody went quiet,” laughs Gary. “I hope they don’t forget where they put the keys to start it again in four years’ time.”

“When we first got here, the first thing we did was come to see it,” adds Jane, who is also positive about the MPs who turned up to watch. “I think it’s good they showed a bit of respect. Because they don’t usually show much respect, do they?”

And, as MPs mouthing off about Big Ben are challenged on their contrasting reactions to Grenfell, that is precisely the problem with an otherwise innocent show of sentimentality.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.