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: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder