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.

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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.