Why Tory MPs must support House of Lords reform

We must be seen to give power to the many and take it away from the few.

At the time of writing, we are on the cusp of one of the most important constitutional reform votes in a generation. Some Conservative MPs might claim they have policy objections to the bill. But ultimately, tonight’s vote is a clear choice: either members are for "selection" or for "election" to the second chamber. Either members are for appointments, or they are for devolving power to the people via the ballot box.

Opponents have obsessed over the bill’s detail – the proportional voting system, the 15 year terms, the 80:20 split have dominated proceedings. But in walking through the oppposition lobby tonight, members would be voting against the very principle of democracy and election. They would be denying the bill a future and denying the House an opportunity to refine the bill’s contents at committee stage. If members support the very principle of elections, they should pass this bill.

As a good Conservative, there are many reasons to support the bill. Critics have claimed it is solely a Liberal Democrat agenda. But we cannot blame our coalition partners for much of the philosophy behind the bill. Elected police commissioners and city mayors were Conservative driven policies. Localism, the devolution of power to the electorate and trusting in the people is part of our DNA. If we condemn the European Union for its lack of democracy, why should we deny the public the right to vote for 50 per cent of our parliament?  It is absolutely critical that we, as Conservatives, are seen to be giving power to the many and taking it away from the few.

Opponents of reform seem concerned that the government will struggle to get its legislation through Parliament if there are two elected, functioning Houses. But the House of Commons is not the government, it is separate. Two elected Houses of Parliament would not defeat any government any more than they do in any bicameral systems around the world. And it would be no bad thing if a stronger Parliament deterred the government from passing ill-considered legislation. As good Conservatives, by passing this Bill, we would also achieve the objective of getting government to do less, but better.

Finally, members seem convinced that the case for "selection" lies in the fact political bias would be avoided. But what criteria would be used for selection? Would membership of a political party preclude appointment to the second chamber? We must consider whether people would represent vested interests – the British Medical Association; the National Union of Teachers and the Law Society are already heavily represented - and embed the status quo rather than offer reform and move our democracy forward. Members must be clear that selection can be negative. One of the previous chairmen of The House of Lords Appointments Commission said: "We don’t want hairdressers in the House of Lords." Selection processes will favour only those who are in the right dinner party circuit, who have networked and are well connected, not necessarily the best person for the job.

Perhaps not every aspect of the bill is perfect – some of us might have liked more radical reform – but tonight’s vote offers us an opportunity to take a crucial step forward. It is an opportunity for us to say that we trust the people, and that we are taking away the appointments system from the Prime Minister and giving it to the electorate.

Peers file out of the chamber of the House of Lords. Photograph: Getty Images.

Laura Sandys is the Conservative MP for South Thanet and was an international businesswoman before entering Parliament in 2010.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

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

0800 7318496