Tory MPs threaten serious rebellion over House of Lords reform

Cameron faces dissent from some of his most loyal backbenchers.

It seems that no constitutional change can be suggested by government without instantly being termed a Maastricht moment.

Today, it is House of Lords reform. Last night, at a hostile meeting of the 1922 Committee – the influential group of Conservative backbenchers – MPs warned that they would revolt.  The Daily Mail quotes one MP saying that it would "make Maastricht look like a tea party". House of Lords reform – making the upper chamber 80 per cent elected with 15 year terms – is set to be the centrepiece of the Queen’s Speech.

Reportedly, more than 90 MPs signalled their unhappiness with the bill at last night’s meeting, with just one backbencher, Gavin Barwell, speaking in favour of the policy. Seven Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPS) said they would resign from their positions.

There are several reasons why this rebellion is important. House of Lords reform is an important coalition issue. David Cameron is believed to have given Nick Clegg a personal assurance that he will make sure the bill goes through. Neither of them will want a re-run of the bitter battle over the AV referendum.

Indeed, it is this very fact that is enraging many Tory MPs, who are angry that a serious constitutional change that could cause political deadlock is being waved through to appease the junior coalition partner. Downing Street has reiterated that the Conservative manifesto committed the party to Lords reform:

We will work to build a consensus for a mainly elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords, recognising that an efficient and effective second chamber should play an important role in our democracy and requires both legitimacy and public confidence.

(Over at ConservativeHome, Paul Goodman disputes this commitment).

If all those who said they would rebel carry through their threat, the backlash could surpass that seen over Europe, when 81 Tory rebels defied the party whip. That could place Cameron in the uncomfortable position of relying on Labour to get the bill through, which would further alienate Conservative members. It is also a high-risk strategy: if Ed Miliband’s party decides not to play ball, the government could have an embarrassing defeat on his hands.

What is particularly notable about this rebellion is that it includes some of Cameron’s most loyal backbenchers. Loyalist MPs Jesse Norman and Nadhim Zahawi, both close to George Osborne, have been leading the backlash against the bill. This is by no means a protest confined to the dissenting right-wing of the party.

Cameron has form on facing down his critics in the party, but this episode presents even more of a political headache. Reform of the upper chamber has long triggered intractable arguments. The political stakes are high as the government attempts to win it once and for all.
 

The ceremonial key to the Palace of Westminster is seen on the uniform of the Lord Chamberlain. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
Show Hide image

Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496