When the House of Lords defeated the government over tax credits, the Conservatives immediately signalled that there would be consequences. Today, with the publication of the Strathclyde review into the second chamber’s powers, it became clear what they would be. The report by the Tory peer recommends ending the Lords’ right to veto secondary legislation such as the tax credits cuts. Instead, the upper house would merely have the right to tell MPs to “think again”.
Peers traditionally avoid vetoing financial measures and manifesto commitments but felt legitimated in voting against the cuts because they were introduced as secondary legislation (which is unamendable by MPs) and were not included in the Conservative manifesto. But were the government to adopt Strathclyde’s proposal, it would be empowered to pass measures without fear of defeat.
Labour Lords leader Angela Smith has denounced the move as a “massive overreaction” but it’s not just the opposition that intends to resist ministers. When I spoke to Conservatives about the planned change, they warned against any attempt to reduce the Lords’ powers. Former shadow home secretary David Davis told me: “If Labour have got an ounce of sense it will be very difficult for the government to get that through. I would think at least a dozen people on my side would be against that.”
Tory MP Jeremy Lefroy said: “I would certainly like to see parliament to have much more ability to hold the executive to account over financial matters and that’s why I welcomed what happened over tax credits. The House of Lords had to do the job and it did the job. The executive in this country is still too powerful and parliament is not powerful enough.” And Conservative peer Ralph Lucas told me: “To respond to government difficulties by reducing the power of parliament is not where I have stood all my political life and certainly not where we stood in opposition. The executive has quite enough power. If they were strengthening the Commons as a legislature at the expense of the Lords, fine, that might be arguable. But to strengthen the government at the expense of the Lords doesn’t seem to be a sensible move.”
The reforms will be introduced as primary legislation, denying peers the right to block them, but if Davis’s prediction of a dozen rebels is correct then the government’s slender Commons majority could easily be eroded.