Prime Minister David Cameron abandoned a bid to drive through legislation to overhaul the House of Lords after Conservative lawmakers threatened to rebel, throwing relations with his coalition partners into jeopardy.
Dozens of Conservative lawmakers, along with the opposition Labour Party, had said they’d vote against a motion designed to limit the time the House of Commons can spend debating the bill. It meant Cameron was facing his first parliamentary defeat.
A separate vote to approve the main principles of the bill was passed by 462 votes to 124 tonight, only thanks to Labour support. Ninety-one Tories defied the government and voted against the bill, according to Politicshome.com. That’s the biggest rebellion since the coalition took office in May 2010.
“It’s very sensible,” Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University, said of the decision to ditch the program motion. “They weren’t going to win and being defeated would have been a much bigger story. They can still try a program motion later in the bill’s progress, perhaps after a couple of all-night sittings on it, so people can see what that’s like.”
The retreat is a blow to Cameron’s authority and may stoke tensions with his Liberal Democrat partners, for whom the introduction of a largely elected upper chamber is a priority. A former aide to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has said Liberal Democrat lawmakers may oppose parliamentary boundary changes that might help the Conservatives at the 2015 election if the Tories block the Lords bill.
The move also raised the possibility that opponents of change may try to block the legislation by dragging out debate until time runs out.
Announcing the decision to drop the motion, the Conservative leader of the House of Commons, George Young, blamed Labour for siding with Tory rebels.
“We have listened carefully to the debate so far,” Young told lawmakers. “For Lords reform to progress, it needs those that support reform to vote for reform and to vote for that reform to make progress through this house. It is clear the opposition is not prepared to do that so we will not move the program motion tonight.”
Young said the government would seek to table another timetable motion when the House of Commons returns from its summer vacation in October, giving it time to convince opponents.
“We have waited for Lords reform for over 100 years, we can wait for a couple more months,” Clegg’s office said. “The most important thing is that we win the vote.”
Asked today if the vote posed a risk to the survival of the coalition, Cameron said, “we have been and will continue to be a very radical government.” He was speaking at a press conference in London.
The House of Lords Reform Bill begins its passage through Parliament today. The proposal involves replacing the current 816-member chamber, made up of political appointees, hereditary nobility and Church of England bishops, with a smaller chamber of mainly elected members serving a single 15-year term. The bill would reduce the size of the chamber by almost a half.
Speaking in Parliament, Labour lawmaker Angela Eagle called today’s move “a victory for Parliament.”
The retreat came hours after Cameron issued an appeal to Labour leader Ed Miliband not to “play politics” with Lords reform. Labour says it supports the legislation in principle, but wants more time to scrutinize it. Conservative opponents say an elected second chamber will challenge the primacy of the Commons, the lower house.