House of Lords reform: A day in the life of the House of Commons

(C)Misterzee

By Toby Youell

It was over before it had even started. Ten minutes before the debate started, the Tory backbencher, David Tedinnick told the House that the programme motion would be removed. The House was unsure what exactly this meant.

Some clarity came an hour later when the Speaker told the House that the lack of a programme motion meant that even if MPs did give the Bill a second reading, the government would still not be committed to following it through. With recess fast approaching, the Bill was essentially dead. The time was five thirty. Four and a half hours before the now superfluous vote was to take place.

The SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, Pete Wishart helpfully suggested that the MPs should go home. He had a point: Labour had awkwardly manoeuvred itself into an embarrassing set of policy contradictions, the Lib Dems were anxious to avoid being seen as the only supporters of reform and the Conservatives had to somehow get to the other side of the debate without tearing themselves apart. Nobody had anything to gain from continuing the debate.

Nevertheless, 90 back-benchers had prepared speeches. The news of their speeches’ sudden obsolescence emboldened rather than tempered the spirits of the backbenchers. Everybody knew that the three line whip was insincere and that rebellion now would be forever forgiven. This was to Conservative backbenchers what Freshers Week is to university students. Backbenchers could fantasise about matching the oratory of great statesmen without exposing themselves to the career risks that usually define statesmenship. More intoxicating still was the watchful eye of Betty Boothroyd who, at the beginning of the debate, was sat in a gallery opposite the Coalition benches casting deathly withering looks at Lib Dem MPs. It was to be less of a debate and more of a collection of soundbites for the constituency press to pick up.

First in was Jesse Norman, Old Etonian, former banker, self-styled “teacher” and now MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire. He approached the debate in a messianic manner tinged with entitlement that only he can properly pull off. He quickly pointed out that the programme motion was being withdrawn due to Conservative, not Labour opposition.

Soon came Richard Harrington, MP for Watford who quipped that, “some of my best friends are Liberal Democrats” to knowing laughs from all sides of the chamber. The sort of empty knowing laugh that commuters share in a stationary train, one that says, “we’re screwed, but at least we’re in it together”. Edward Leigh, MP for Gainsborough remarked that the proposals would make the House of Lords the “poodle of the Commons”. He took the time to inform the government that their “parliamentary incompetence” was handing power over to the opposition. Edward Leigh was enjoying himself. The star of this pantomime was Conor Burns, MP for Bournemouth West, the junior minister who had suspended his executive career by a couple of months. He even wore a pantomime blue and yellow tie to reinforce his commitment to both the performing arts and the coalition. His soundbites were mostly to do with principle but he also dropped, “Alice in Wonderland world we now live in” for Bournemouth’s satirical cartoonists to work on.

There were, of course, exceptions to these theatrical performances. Eleanor Laing’s insistence that the lack of proper debate was “simply wrong” had the sort of pathological conviction that would make her a great scientologist, excluding her keenness on the Church of England’s representation in Parliament of course.

Occasionally, a member of the Lib Dem front bench would make an interjection and quote passages from the Conservative manifesto, as if it was some sacred ancient text that was the sole source of truth and light.  While doing so, the grandee would sometimes shake a piece of paper that was presumably a spare copy of the manifesto that they always carry around with them for times of crisis.

Labour was also in a tricky situation. The proposals closely resembled those in its manifesto, but they wished to firstly embarrass the government and secondly to maintain the status quo, which is currently working quite well for them. Their first intention was quashed by the removal of the programme motion and the second desire could not speak its name. As a compromise, they sought to dirty the Bill by its association with the Lib Dems. Thomas Docherty, MP for Dumfermline and West Fife obligingly lampooned the Bill as, “a Liberal Democrat Bill.” Scathing.

After a day of debate, reform of the Lord’s won’t happen and the Coalition is a little more fragmented than before. They may as well have stayed at home.

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