U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is set to abandon plans to overhaul the House of Lords amid opposition from rank-and-file members of his Conservative Party, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
The move threatens to inflame tensions with Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners, for whom the introduction of a largely elected upper chamber of Parliament is a priority.
Cameron had promised “one more try” to rescue Lords reform after almost a third of Conservative lawmakers in the House of Commons voted against fast-tracking the legislation last month. The Liberal Democrats have threatened to block changes to electoral boundaries that may help the Conservatives at the 2015 general election unless the Tories back the bill.
“The coalition will continue to stagger on but it will further weaken a relationship that has got more fractious in recent months,” said John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. “The coalition is now more vulnerable. It’s not a killer blow but it will increase the risk that the Lib Dems pull out before the election.”
Failure to secure changes to the House of Lords would 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.
Cameron on July 15 wrote in the Sunday Times that the coalition partners must surmount their “profound areas of disagreement” and avoid descending into “division and navel-gazing” after lawmakers from both sides openly questioned the chances of the coalition lasting until the next election.
Cameron has been seeking to get the government back on track after being forced to abandon several of the tax-raising proposals announced in the March budget following a popular backlash and after months of poor economic news. A YouGov Plc poll completed on July 23 gave Labour 43 percent support, the Conservatives 33 percent and the Liberal Democrats 9 percent.
Days after last month’s Commons rebellion, Cameron and Clegg appeared together in public to pledge a new “slimmed-down” agreement on government priorities until the election. Cameron is also planning to reorganize his ministerial team after his summer break, said a person familiar with the matter.
The government had been planning to put a new timetable motion to lawmakers after they return from the parliamentary recess in October, giving time to win over opponents. Clegg’s office said talks are continuing.
Without an agreement, the bill has little chance of success as opponents could kill it by dragging out debate until time runs out. Last month’s rebellion saw ninety-one Conservative lawmakers vote against the motion, the biggest revolt since the coalition government came to power in May 2010.
Clegg’s former director of strategy has said that Liberal Democrat lawmakers may oppose the redrawing of parliamentary boundaries wanted by the Tories if the Lords bill fails.
“A deal’s a deal and it’s important you stick to that deal and you stick to the contract,” Clegg told broadcasters last month. “That’s why it is important that we deliver House of Lords reform, because it’s a clear commitment in the coalition agreement.”
The House of Lords Reform Bill 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.
Little in Return
Conservative opponents say an elected second chamber will challenge the primacy of the Commons, the lower house. The opposition Labour Party says it supports the legislation in principle, but wants more time to scrutinize it. Critics on both sides say Lords reform should not be a priority at a time when the economy is in recession.
Labour said the deadlock over Lords reform showed the Liberal Democrats had got little in return for supporting the Conservatives’ “harsh and unfair” economic program.
“Nick Clegg may end up with nothing, ruthlessly exposing his naivety,” said Sadiq Khan, who speaks for Labour on justice policy. “Millions of people struggling through the tough economic times will question his political priorities.”