They don't know what they're doing

Steve BassamSteve Bassam argues that the government's political programme is in danger of being delayed just to keep Nick Clegg content

So this week we finally get to see the Nick Clegg version of Lords reform. Regardless of the merits of progress with this Bill, the Coalition government’s programme of legislation has already suffered because of it. Ambitions have been limited by what Ministers can get through in the current session with Lords reform in place. Competing with other Bills for time, Lords reform threatens to dictate the speed at which other measures make it onto the statute book.

The House of Lords currently has six government Bills in play, two of which are described as ‘Lords starters’: Crime & Courts, and Justice & Security. These two Bills would never have been on my list to start in the Lords. Any amendments we pass will be hard for the government to undo as they can't use the Parliament Act on either Bill and what emerges from the Lords should as a rule stay. It is also harder for the Commons to claim financial privilege with Lords starters.

Both of the Crime & Courts and Justice & Security Bills have few friends. The likelihood is that both will suffer setbacks and have a round of ping pong with no guarantees. How ensnared they get with Lords reform and other emerging problems is hard to predict.

I had thought that nearly half way through the parliament, Ministers would have become a bit more competent. Not so. The Conservative Leader in the Lords, Tom Strathclyde has been trying to make it easier for the government to get its way with controversial legislation. First up he tried to fix it so the Lords would take all but a few Bills away from the main chamber. Peers massively rejected this move seeing it as designed to enable more time for Lords reform.

Cunning and avuncular operator that he is, Lord Strathclyde has since decided to try to fix business on a Bill by Bill basis to provide more time. Last week for example, he tried to force the Financial Services Bill off the floor of the Lords and into Grand Committee. He lost again – the 50th Lords defeat of the Parliament with over 50 Tory Peers abstaining on a key vote brought without proper notice. Those ignoring his pleas for loyalty included ex-Chancellors Lamont and Lawson and seven other former Cabinet ministers. Even Baroness Warsi from the current top table didn't stick around long enough after Lords question time to help out.

So the danger for the government in the Lords is that they end up running out of friends on their own benches just before considering a measure that will eliminate a system of patronage that put nearly all of them in place. A core political programme is therefore in danger of being both reviled and delayed just to keep an unpopular LibDem Deputy Prime Minister content. The politics of this are fairly poisonous in the Coalition.

The biggest puzzle is who is advising on such a kamikaze approach. As a whip with a decade of whipping experience to draw on, I am conscious that governments draw up handling strategies for Bills. I would love to read the one for Lords reform. The political anorak in me used to delight in unpicking the documents setting out how legislation was to be taken through a reluctant House of Lords, and the paper covering this one must be a corker. So Mr Clegg how is it to be done and what sort of concessions will you be prepared to make to claim your personal legacy?

What promised to be a rather dull programme for this new parliamentary session might turn out to be rather more dramatic than the Coalition would like. Labour’s job as a responsible opposition is to ensure it all goes properly challenged. Take it as a given that we will do so in typical Lords style.

Lord Steve Bassam of Brighton is Labour's Chief Whip in the Lords

This article was first published at

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