Activist peers need to think again

Government ministers are talking tough over a Lords plot to defeat them, via a fatal motion to an SI, on cuts to tax credits.

There are threats that ministers are ready to restrict the Upper House’s powers to amend legislation. More excitable anonymous sources claim the government might even abolish the Lords if they continue to defy them and break conventions.

What short memories these Tories have.

Leaving aside the fact it was Tory rebels that blocked attempts to reform the Lords in the last parliament, Cameron is the first Conservative Prime Minister who does not have a massive majority of hereditary peers to do his bidding.

The unedifying spectacle of his party threatening dark retaliation won’t cut any ice with Labour peers who recall what life was like before their party partially reformed the Upper House.

PMs from Attlee to Wilson to Blair won majorities in the Commons and then had to navigate their legislative agenda through a House of Lords dominated by their enemies.

Prime Ministers from Chrchill to Heath to Thatcher weren’t interested in Lords reform. Only a political idiot would throw away such an advantage. That is the reason William Hague, now Lord Hague of Richmond, so opposed the modest reforms Blair proposed at the turn of the century.

Cameron has unexpectedly led his party to victory, and he is no doubt missing that certain something his Tory predecessors had – total domination of both chambers.

Toys are therefore being ejected from prams. However, in the case of tax credits the government has a point.

Peers are not supposed to vote down financial matters. That’s an important principle.

Activist Lib Dem and Labour peers, no doubt frustrated at their parties’ failure at the last election, think they should use their modest powers to “defeat” the government.

This is a mistake. While they may not like being members of an unelected House, they should not try to undermine the constitutional settlement developed more than 100 years ago. It is worth remembering that the 1911 settlement and the Salisbury convention both came about to allow Liberal and Labour governments to enact their manifesto commitments.

Now that a Conservative government is for the first time having to ask the House of Lords for similar respect for its democratic mandate, peers would be wise to show it.

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