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.

Photo: Getty
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The Brexiteers have lost battles but they are still set to win the war

The prospect of the UK avoiding Brexit, or even a “hard” version, remains doubtful. 

Before the general election, the Brexiteers would boast that everything had gone their way. Parliament had voted to trigger Article 50 by a majority of 372. The Treasury-forecast recession hadn't occurred. And polls showed the public backing Brexit by a comfortable margin

But since the Conservatives' electoral humbling, the Leavers have been forced to retreat on multiple fronts. After promising in May that the dispute over the timetable for the Brexit talks would be "the fight of the summer", David Davis capitulated on the first day.

The UK will be forced to settle matters such as EU citizens' rights, the Irish border and the divorce bill before discussions begin on a future relationship. Having previously insisted that a new trade deal could agreed by 29 March 2019 (Britain's scheduled departure date), the Brexiteers have now conceded that this is, in Liam Fox's words, "optimistic" (translation: deluded). 

That means the transitional arrangement the Leavers once resisted is now regarded as inevitable. After the eradication of the Conservatives' majority, the insistence that "no deal is better than a bad deal" is no longer credible. No deal would mean the immediate return of a hard Northern Irish border (to the consternation of the Tories' partners the DUP) and, in a hung parliament, there are no longer the votes required to pursue a radical deregulatory, free market agenda (for the purpose of undercutting the EU). As importantly for the Conservatives, an apocalyptic exit could pave the way for a Jeremy Corbyn premiership (a figure they previously regarded as irretrievably doomed). 

Philip Hammond, emboldened by the humiliation of the Prime Minister who planned to sack him, has today outlined an alternative. After formally departing the EU in 2019, Britain will continue to abide by the rules of the single market and the customs union: the acceptance of free movement, European legal supremacy, continued budget contributions and a prohibition on independent trade deals. Faced with the obstacles described above, even hard Brexiteers such as Liam Fox and Michael Gove have recognised that the game is up.

But though they have lost battles, the Leavers are still set to win the war. There is no parliamentary majority for a second referendum (with the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats still enfeebled), Hammond has conceded that any transitional arrangement would end by June 2022 (the scheduled date of the next election) and most MPs are prepared to accept single market withdrawal. The prospect of Britain avoiding Brexit, or even a "hard" version, remains doubtful. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.