It may seem a surprising matter for politicians to be focusing their energy on internal reform amid a severe economic crisis and a high-profile banking scandal, but the future of the British House of Lords has sparked a row that weakened the prime minister, David Cameron, and threatened the unity of the coalition government.
Tuesday, Mr. Cameron called off a vote on fast-tracking reform of the Lords, Parliament’s second house, after a group of around 90 conservative rebel Members of Parliament said they would defy a three-line whip – a party command – to vote in favor of speeding up reform.
Currently, the 14th-century House of Lords is made up of 800 appointed – not elected – members, who are nobles and bishops. A reform bill would see the house reduced to 450 members, 80 percent of whom would be elected.
The Liberal Democrats have long supported such a reform, first campaigned for by their liberal predecessors a century ago. A discussion of reform of the Lords was part of the Liberal Democrats' coalition agreement with the Conservatives in 2010.
But the rebel Tories argue that an elected upper house would challenge the primacy of the House of Commons, and would decrease Britain's range of expertise that helps the Lords review and revise legislation approved by the Commons. Members' diverse backgrounds in the fields of medicine and science have been cited to significantly contribute to sound lawmaking.
The opposition Labour Party has exploited the rift by making it clear they would vote with the Tory rebels, while at the same time supporting reform. Indeed, while voting against the motion to fast-track the Lords Reform Bill through Parliament, they also voted on a second reading of the reform bill, which was passed.
This was a small step toward eventually passing it. But without the program motion approved, debates over the bill could drag on for days and even weeks, taking up parliamentary time and sabotaging the rest of the government’s agenda in times of urgent economic distress.
Political pundits say Cameron is clearly rattled by the size of the rebellion, which overshadows even the rift of last October, when 81 Tory MPs defied him to demand a referendum on Britain's membership to the European Union.
A growing number of MPs, including loyalists, are beginning to question the authority of Cameron and the chancellor, George Osborne, after U-turns during the last budget discussion. More widely, the Leveson enquiry into media standards, spurred by a phone-hacking scandal at the now-shuttered News of the World, has exposed an embarrassingly close relationship between the government and the Murdoch News Corp. empire, which many have found off-putting.
“I’d say the last three or four months have been pretty desperate for Cameron and Osborne, and this [the Lords vote] just adds to the impression that Cameron is losing ground,” says Gerry Stoker, professor of politics and governance at the University of Southampton.
He adds that if Cameron had pushed on with the vote, he could have blamed his failure on Labour, while cancelling the vote was a “tactical error” that underscored his waning authority.
The row is also bad for the health of the coalition, he says. Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, needs success in the struggle for reform to combat criticisms from his own MPs that he has made too many concessions to the Conservatives since they jointly came to power.
“A plague on both their houses,” he said, referencing a line from Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet" as he criticized both conservative and Labour rebels. This has prompted some speculation about his words to Cameron about the matter in private.
Meantime, most Britons don’t feel particularly excited by reform of the Lords: constitutional reform leaves most voters cold.
This is likely to change in October, when parliament reconvenes, if Cameron has not managed to change the minds of the Tory rebels during the summer break by then.