Thursday 21 April 2011

My Tory Cabinet colleagues were insincere in voting for an elected Lords, says Clegg

Nick Clegg spoke at the ippr this morning on the case for the Alternative Vote and the new politics.

The Lords reform debate is also coming back to life, with most in Westminster believing it will be pushed forward as a consolation prize to the Liberal Democrats if the voting reform referendum a No vote.

So I asked the Deputy Prime Minister whether he could tell us truthfully that the issue would have as much priority whatever the outcome of the AV referendum. And I also asked whether, given that many of his Conservative colleagues in Cabinet had voted in favour of a wholly elected second chamber, and the Coalition agreement was committed to a wholly or mainly elected chamber, the New Politics might involve putting that to a free vote of the House of Commons, rather than stitching it up behind closed doors in Cabinet Committee.

Will Straw also asked a Lords question: whether Clegg agreed with the Constitution Unit's report on the dangers of packing the Lords.

Clegg ignored Straw's question entirely, and the first part of mine. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, also suggested that "only at ippr, would a speech on AV lead to questions about Lords reform". However, his speech had just suggested the issue was a passionate cause for his party to settle after a century, making it odd to mock questions about what he regards as a major constitutional issue.

This is what he did say in response to my call for a Commons free vote on fully or partially elected options.

"As you know, I am personally in favour of wholly elected second chamber. A lot of Conservatives aren't - however they may have voted. As you know, Sunder, there were many tactical voting and games being played to try to block change".

Clegg said that, when the draft Bill is published, "a joint committee of the House of Commons and House of Lords will pore over it for a year or so, or perhaps a bit less, so I think there are many turns of this wheel yet".

The name-check was a neat reminder of Clegg's personal touch in that first TV debate, during the heady days of Cleggmania a year ago.

Clegg is clearly annoyed at the "visceral" personal attacks on him, by the Conservative-backed anti-AV campaign. So perhaps he ought to identify which Tory colleagues he thinks were casting an insincere vote for an elected Lords.

I don't think Clegg's charge against his coalition partner stands up.

Tory Cabinet members who voted for a 100% elected Lords were George Osborne, Ken Clarke, Liam Fox, Eric Pickles, Owen Paterson and Jeremy Hunt. (Almost everybody else already backed 80%). Next Left published the full list on Sunday, of how the current Cabinet voted on an elected Lords in the 2007 free vote, showing how Cabinet members split 12-6 for 100% over 80%.

Yet Clegg's 'tactical' explanation of Tory insincerity fails - certainly in the case of Osborne, Clarke, Fox and Paterson, who all voted exactly as Clegg did, for an 80% Lords as well as for 100%. This makes no sense at all as a tactical wrecking effort - which would have depended on voting against the 80% option. (Eric Pickles and Jeremy Hunt did do that, but might now be challenged to stick to their support for 100%).

Clegg did have a good line in saying "I hear the Labour Party is now passionately in favour of 100% elected, having delivered precisely zero per cent. The zeal of the convert is always welcome".

However, it is quite probable that the class of 2010 have made this House of Commmons keener on a fully elected chamber than the last one.

Perhaps Clegg should pick up the idea of a free vote and run with it under the 'new politics' banner.

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