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Cameron Retreat May Leave Rebel Conservatives Wanting More

British Prime Minister David Cameron
David Cameron, U.K. prime minister. Photographer: Jock Fistick/Bloomberg

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s retreat over his proposed House of Lords overhaul may embolden rebellious members of his Conservative Party.

Cameron’s decision yesterday hours before a vote he was set to lose followed reversals on at least four tax measures in recent months. The move points to doubts about his leadership and anger in his Conservative Party over sharing power with the Liberal Democrats, said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University and an expert on voting tactics.

“They’re mutinous, and astonishingly mutinous for a party that’s only two years into government,” Cowley said in a telephone interview yesterday. “Cameron’s relations both with his own party and the Liberal Democrats are appalling.”

The setback for Cameron came on a procedural measure when the government dropped a motion to fast-track the Lords Reform Bill through Parliament. Seventy of the Conservatives’ 305 lawmakers had signed a letter saying they’d vote against it. The bill may now fall victim to filibusters, with other legislation held up behind it.

The bill, which would introduce elections to the upper house, passed its first Parliamentary hurdle last night only with the support of the opposition Labour Party. Ninety-one Conservative lawmakers voted against it, the biggest rebellion since the coalition government came to power in May 2010.

The next largest rebellion came in October last year, when 81 lawmakers defied the leadership to demand a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Last night’s revolt was the largest of any at the second reading stage since 1945.

Similar Fate

Without the so-called program motion, the Lords bill faces a similar fate to an earlier attempt the alter structure of the unelected chamber. That effort, introduced by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1968, was abandoned in 1969. After 80 hours of debate and a series of all-night sittings, lawmakers didn’t even get halfway through the bill.

The government will return to the idea of a program motion later in the year, or drop the bill. “It is unlikely we will want to snarl up legislation on something that is not a priority,” Cameron’s office said.

Since this year’s budget was presented in March, Cameron has backed down over plans to tax hot food and caravans, to cap tax relief on charitable donations, and to increase fuel duties. Each defeat stokes Tory anger at compromises that he made in forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and frustrated at their lack of promotion prospects.

“A lot of the government’s problem has been introducing things that are incredibly badly thought through,” Justin Fisher, a professor of political science and history at Brunel University in Uxbridge, near London, said in an interview. “It’s less a question of being weak and more a question of starting to look less competent.”

Labour Blamed

Cameron’s allies blamed Labour for their climbdown, saying the opposition sided with Tory rebels to embarrass the government.

“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,” George Young, the Conservative leader of the House of Commons, told lawmakers. “It is clear the opposition is not prepared to do that.”

Cameron’s spokesman, Steve Field, said the government would seek to “build the necessary consensus.” Asked what would happen to the bill now, Field said “there is a majority in the House of Commons for this reform,” hinting Cameron would seek to bring Labour lawmakers on board, rather than convincing rebels in his own party.

Parliament Rebellions

According to Cowley, the pattern for rebellions in previous Parliaments has been that older lawmakers who’d been passed over for ministerial posts or fallen out with the party leadership formed the bulk of early opponents, with new ones joining in only after a few years. With nearly half of his Parliamentary party newly elected in 2010, Cameron might have hoped for a few years of relative peace, he said.

His handicap has been that the coalition has restricted his use of the tools prime ministers usually have to rally doubters. He’s agreed that around a fifth of his ministers will be Liberal Democrats, reducing the slots available to offer to Tories. Coalition also means that Cameron can’t easily adjust his program to pacify Tory lawmakers because everything has to be agreed upon with the Liberal Democrats.

‘Looking Stupid’

The reversals themselves create a vicious circle. “Rebels know that if they gather enough support, the government will back down,” Cowley said. “And people who might support the government are less willing to do it if they suspect the prime minister may give in the next day and make them look stupid.”

A posting on Twitter Inc.’s social-networking site last night from Labour lawmaker Karl Turner claimed he had witnessed an angry Cameron “finger-pointing and prodding” rebel Conservative Jesse Norman. Field, asked about the claim, characterized the encounter as “not angry.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband taunted Cameron over the incident at their weekly questions session in Parliament today. “Last night he lost control of his party and, not for the first time, lost his temper as well,” he said. “The redder he gets, the less he convinces people.”

Defeat on plans to introduce elections to the Lords would also be a blow to Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who in 2011 lost a referendum to change the voting system in general elections. He could face voters in 2015 without having delivered any of the constitutional changes he said he’d won in the 2010 coalition negotiations.

Pressure on Cameron

“We have delivered every element of the coalition agreement, we have got people through the lobbies,” Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, told BBC Radio 4 today. “The prime minister needs to work out how he can deliver his side of the coalition agreement.”

Clegg’s former director of strategy said last week that Liberal Democrat lawmakers may oppose parliamentary boundary changes that might help the Conservatives at the 2015 general election if the Tories block the Lords bill. Hughes suggested his party may block other bills that Tories want passed.

Speaking to broadcasters in London today, Clegg indicated he expects Cameron to bring rebel lawmakers into line to fulfill the commitment to Lords reform made in the coalition formation talks in 2010.

“A deal’s a deal and it’s important you stick to that deal and you stick to the contract, if you like, that you have entered into,” he said.“That’s why I think it is important -- not least because so far both parties have stuck to that deal very effectively -- that we continue to do so. That’s why it is important that we deliver House of Lords reform, because it’s a clear commitment in the coalition agreement.”

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