At least five British Cabinet ministers have joined the Conservative revolt over House of Lords reform, amid growing fears that proposals for a largely elected second chamber could destroy the coalition.
British Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond and Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove raised their concerns at a Cabinet meeting earlier this month, saying the changes, which are strongly backed by British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats — the junior partner in the coalition — should not be a legislative priority.
Other Cabinet ministers strongly opposed to making the issue the centerpiece of next month’s Queen’s Speech include the leader of the House of Lords, Thomas Galbraith, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith.
News of the Cabinet backlash comes on the eve of publication today of a report by an all-party committee on Lords reform. The committee, which is made up of peers and MPs, will recommend an 80 percent elected House of Lords, with peers serving non-renewable 15-year terms. The other 20 percent of members would be chosen by an appointments commission. The committee will also recommend that a referendum be held to determine whether the changes should come into force.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s problems on the issue deepened on Saturday night when senior Tory MPs said that if he granted a referendum on this constitutional change, then many members of his party would also demand a plebiscite on Britain’s relationship with the EU for the same reason.
Senior Tories now fear that their party and the Lib Dems — for whom Lords reform is a defining issue — will end up at war over the matter and that the proposals could fatally undermine the coalition.
Both Cameron and Clegg have said that they are “not persuaded” of the case for a referendum, because the intention to reform the Lords was spelled out in the election manifestos of all three main parties before the 2010 election.
However, the prime minister is aware that he will be under huge pressure to grant one. Conscious of this, Cameron has stopped short of locking off the option. Clegg is more strongly opposed, fearing that a vote would not capture the public imagination and, as with last year’s vote on electoral reform for the House of Commons, could be lost.
On Saturday night, Mark Pritchard, secretary of the so-called 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs, said that while a referendum on changes to the Lords was desirable, it would not be good enough on its own and would reopen Tory demands for a referendum on the EU.
“These constitutional changes to the Lords should require a referendum, but delivering a referendum on this without delivering one on Europe would be a massive headache for the government,” he said.
At a meeting of Tory backbenchers on Thursday, a succession of Tory MPs spoke out against Lords reform and several parliamentary aides to ministers threatened to resign if the move went ahead.
It is understood that Gove believes the government has far more important issues to deal with than reforming the second chamber.
Meanwhile, Conor Burns, parliamentary aide to Paterson, would not confirm that his boss had strong reservations, but said: “I totally agree with what the prime minister said before the last election, that reform of the House of Lords is an urgent issue ... for a fourth term.”