The death of Lords reform is an indictment of Westminster

Lords reform passed with a majority of 338, yet it will never see the light of day.

If the dramatic political events of yesterday tell us anything, it’s probably that we were barking up the wrong tree on Lords reform. We were thinking too small. We should have been chasing Westminster reform.

To everyone sitting in the Westminster bubble, I say this. In last month's Commons vote, Lords reform passed with a majority of 338, with support from all three of the main parties, yet it will not see the light of the day. What does that say to the wider public about how well, or rather badly, "the system" works? We can blame "game playing" by Labour (a charge we in the Lib Dems have now opened ourselves up to – we were all for equal constituencies not so long ago…) or weak leadership from a Prime Minster incapable of getting his backbenchers to support legislation fashioned (let’s not forget) by a non-partisan, cross-party group of Parliamentarians. But actually none of this, nor the subsequent game of he-said-she-said, does our politics any credit.

No, the electorate just sees a dysfunctional system that cannot deliver a reform promised for 100 years and writ large in everyone’s manifestos. Is it any wonder, then, that the public turns its back on political parties, who have seen their membership fall so dramatically, as a result? Is it a surprise that we get excited about a 65% turnout at a general election when, until as recently as 1992, turnouts of 75 or even 80% were the norm? Or that the most popular Conservative politician in the country isn’t even a member of Parliament?

Sure, most people in the country don’t have Lords reform at the top of their list of priorities right now. But that only makes the failure to achieve it even more bizarre – this isn’t some high profile vote loser or winner, yet our elected representatives have conspired and connived to make delivering it impossible in an orgy of game playing, petty politics and self-interest. A lot is being written about who the winners and losers from the affair are. But outside the bubble, the words piss up and brewery are the ones that first spring to mind.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference.

Peers sit in the chamber of the House of Lords. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left