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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle