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Cracks form in UK coalition over House of Lords reform

To the shock of Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, a week of parliamentary battles has left the House of Lords safe from his proposed democratic reforms while his own coalition government is in serious jeopardy.


They can rest comfortably in their ermine robes, the 825 lords and ladies who sit on the red leather benches of Britain's upper house of Parliament. For the time being, their lifetime appointments – or, in the case of 92 of them, hereditary seats they earned simply by being born – will remain untouched by the dirty fingers of democracy.

To the shock of Prime Minister David Cameron, a week of parliamentary battles has left the House of Lords safe from his proposed democratic reforms while his own coalition government, in which his Conservatives and the centrist Liberal Democrats share power on the green benches of the House of Commons next door, is in serious jeopardy.

It was not supposed to work out this way. Most British MPs – and their constituents – want to see the creaky old House of Lords brought into the modern world. The proposed bill would have made 80 per cent of its members elected, for 15-year terms.

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Reforming the Lords had been one of the two major conditions demanded by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition agreement they reached with the Tories after the 2010 election. (The other, a referendum to change Britain's voting system, was delivered last year, though the Tories then turned around and campaigned successfully for a No vote.)

Mr. Cameron had stayed true to the agreement, supporting the Lords reform bill and urging Tory ministers and MPs to vote for it. It should have passed easily.

But the geometry of a coalition government is not so simple. In his efforts to keep the Liberal Democrats on side, Mr. Cameron managed to alienate many of his backbenchers, who tend to be far more right-wing than the government itself.

Tuesday saw a concerted effort by the Tory caucus to bring down the bill – and potentially the government. Some of the 91 rebel Tory MPs who voted against the bill were simply arch-conservatives who prefer a fully appointed upper house. But many more were freshman MPs who have become infuriated with a coalition that gives them little power or prospect for advancement, since half the cabinet positions are earmarked for Liberal Democrats.

"Don't forget that this is not a coalition of two parties but of four parties – the Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers, but also their backbenches, which see things quite differently – and keeping them all happy is virtually impossible," says Akash Paun of the non-partisan Institute for Government, which recently completed an analysis of the coalition's prospects.

The Tory backbench has become increasingly recalcitrant in recent months, forcing Mr. Cameron to appease it with harsh-sounding measures on European Union membership, immigration and other red-meat issues that right-wing MPs feel have been neglected.

But Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg made it clear on Thursday that if they kill the Lords reforms, those MPs will be annulling the marriage of convenience between their parties.

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"It's like a contract that any two people sign in everyday life," Mr. Clegg said in a radio interview. "You sign a piece of paper, like a contract, and say these are things we're going to do, these are the obligations we made to each other and a deal's a deal."

In a last-ditch bid to save the Lords reform bill – and thus save his coalition – Mr. Cameron appeared Wednesday before the 1922 Committee, the main assembly of backbenchers, and urged them to have "one more try" in September. To win them over, he promised to reduce the size of the elected portion of the reformed House of Lords below the proposed 80 per cent, and possibly to cut the term of office below the proposed 15 years.

But it wasn't clear Thursday whether this bid had worked. One of the more outspoken rebel Tory backbenchers, Louise Mensch, gave an impassioned speech demanding a national referendum on Lords reform – a move that, given the Liberal Democrat humiliation over the electoral-reform referendum, would not be popular.

Many now feel that the coalition is teetering on the precipice, as both Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg are humiliated at the hands of the MP rebels.

"I think potentially it jeopardizes the coalition," said Mr. Paun of the Institute for Government. "You can see Lords reform as a coalition prize – this is the one thing the Liberal Democrats were hoping to get. So if it's lost, it certainly increases the number of people on the Lib Dem side who are wondering, what was the point of it all, what have they got out of it?"

Few expect the government to collapse this year, for the simple reason that both the Liberal Democrats and the Tories are doing badly in the polls and would fare even worse if they held an upopular election in the midst of a period of harsh budget cuts and austerity measures. But likewise, few see how the coalition can survive under these conditions until the next scheduled election in 2015.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More


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