The battle of the Lords is on

The government is not backing down on reform of parliament's upper house despite the threat of a hug

So House of Lords reform will go ahead. Or rather, a Bill reforming the House of Lords was named in the Queen’s Speech. That doesn’t guarantee it will happen, only that the government will try to make it so. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Nick Clegg and David Cameron have both re-stated their commitment to the plan in recent weeks (although the Lib Dem leader naturally does it with a great deal more enthusiasm than the Prime Minister). But rumours started to surface yesterday of a deal to shelve the proposals, which are certain to provoke a massive rebellion among Tory MPs. The creation of a substantially elected second chamber is the price the Lib Dems demand if they are to allow changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries to go ahead. The Tories see the redrawing of the electoral map as a way to eliminate a pro-Labour bias in the system.

If there were to be a climbdown, both reforms would have to be ditched or postponed until after the election. Tories familiar with Downing Street thinking were very sceptical about the rumours of a retreat last night precisely because the boundary changes are so important in Cameron and Osborne’s minds as part of the strategy for getting a majority. That logic appears to have prevailed.

The Conservative rebels are not happy. They are already complaining bitterly about the prospect of weeks of parliamentary time being taken up with an issue that will strike voters as a perverse distraction from economic woes.  One Conservative MP described it to me recently as “a test of the government’s legitimacy” – in other words, if it goes ahead, the coalition will look as if it is giving up on trying to fix the economy and engaging in displacement activity instead. The counter-argument from Lib Dems - echoed a little more discreetly by Number 10 - is that governments can do many things at once and Lords reform only threatens to become a legislative quagmire because recalcitrant Tories want to make it one. Lords reform of some kind is in the coalition agreement, say those who treat that document as a sacred text, so Tory MPs should get behind it. Lib Dem MPs also point out how much marching behind government policy they have done with clothes pegs on their noses. It’s about time the Tories did the same, they say.

But there are a whole lot more Conservative MPs than there are Lib Dems and Lords reform is in danger of becoming a lightning rod for wider discontent with David Cameron’s leadership, much as rebellions on Europe have done in the past. As I write in my column in this week’s magazine, there is a feeling on the Tory benches that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have been outwitted in a few too many coalition negotiations; that they are overestimating the strength of the Lib Dems and giving away too much. By some estimations, over 100 Conservatives could rebel on Lords reform. This cannot be dismissed as mischief by “the usual suspects” (although Downing Street is currently deploying that line).

There is some room for manoeuvre. The precise shape of a new upper House has yet to be decided – how many members, what proportion will be elected and by what voting system etc. The question of whether a new settlement should be put to a referendum also has to be resolved. (The Lib Dems think not; Cameron has kept the option open.) But every dilution of the principle of a more democratic parliament will require compromises from Cameron on something else and the boundary changes do not lend themselves so easily to the pick and mix approach. Either they happen in time for the next election or they don’t.

The importance that Cameron and Osborne attach to the new constituencies is in itself revealing. It is a symptom of their anxiety about the next election and the difficulty their pollsters are having finding people who didn’t vote Tory in 2010 but might do next time. It is a sign that they are relying on fairly desperate tactical ploys to collect seats in what looks, on current projections, like being another hung parliament. It expresses the fact that they haven’t hit upon a big, overarching campaign message.

But while the boundary review helps the Tory party in aggregate terms, it makes life pretty tricky for many Tory MPs. Some of their seats will be abolished, others will be less safe and many will be forced to seek reselection in battles with neighbouring MPs.  In other words, the price that the Lib Dems would demand for shelving Lords reform feels much higher inside Downing Street strategy seminars than it does in the parliamentary Conservative party – just another reason why the forthcoming battle will be gruesome.

The House of Lords. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.