Was this the moment Cameron doomed Lords reform?

Cameron's past description of Lords reform as a "third-term issue" has encouraged the rebels.

David Cameron's 2009 description of House of Lords reform as a "third-term issue" does much to explain why so many Conservative MPs will rebel against the government in tomorrow's vote. Reform of the Lords was, Cameron suggested, something a Conservative government would only undertake once it had implemented the rest of its programme. For Tory MPs, his words are a reminder that the bill was only introduced to placate the Lib Dems and that Cameron failed to win an election he should have won. That there is little prospect of the Tories winning a third term (or one term, come to that) is, in their view, even more reason for Cameron to use his time in Number 10 wisely (i.e. to get Britain out of recession, not waste time on liberal fetishes like Lords reform).

The danger facing Cameron as the parliamentary debate begins is not that the bill will be defeated on its second reading (since Labour will support the government) but that the programme motion, which would place a 10-day limit on debate, will be rejected (since Labour, which wants more time to scrutinise the bill, will oppose the government). This would be the first time the government has been defeated on its own business in the Commons and would, in the words of one Lib Dem aide, put the coalition in "uncharted territory". The absence of a time limit for debate would allow MPs to filibuster the bill and would delay the rest of the government's legislative programme.

If the bill does become marooned in the Commons, one possibility is that the government will agree to a referendum on the subject. Labour has already called for one and at least some of the Tory rebels (such as Nadhim Zahawi and Rory Stewart) also support a public vote. For the latter, flushed with success from the AV campaign, a Lords referendum is another chance to give Nick Clegg a bloody nose.

Clegg has always insisted that a referendum is unnecessary since all three of the main parties supported Lords reform in their manifestos. But he would find it hard to argue that the people should not decide if parliament is divided. One suspects that Cameron, who has left the door open to a referendum, will look again at this option if the rebels carry the day.

Tory MPs could hand David Cameron his first Commons defeat tomorrow over House of Lords reform. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.