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By Jonathan Isaby
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Questions to the Deputy Prime Minister in the Commons yesterday saw a long line of Conservative MPs seeking to ask Nick Clegg about his plans to reform the House of Lords.
I think it's fair to conclude that the scepticism about meddling with the composition of the second chamber exhibited yesterday from the Tory backbenches is representative of widespread opposition within the parliamentary party.
Here's a selection of the exchanges:
Mel Stride: Given the country’s firm rejection of AV in the recent referendum and the fact that the Government’s proposals include the possibility of some form of proportional representation for election of Members of this Parliament, will my right hon. Friend at least consider giving the people of this country a referendum on this important constitutional change?
The Deputy Prime Minister: The first point of which to remind my hon. Friend is that this was a manifesto commitment of all three parties. It is something that we as a country have been discussing for around 100 years or so, and we have introduced changed electoral systems to a number of Assemblies and Parliaments in the UK without referendums in the past.
Andrew Turner: Should the right hon. Gentleman not drop this unpopular policy, which does not resonate with the majority of the public, and concentrate instead on finding a solution to the problem of the West Lothian question?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I am the first to acknowledge that, whether it is the West Lothian question or reform of the House of Lords, these are of course not matters that are raised by our constituents or on the doorsteps as we campaign at election time, but it does not mean that they are unimportant. We discuss many things in this House, from local government finance to world trade rules and all sorts of things that are not raised from day to day in our local communities, but they are none the less important. That is why we as a country have been struggling with this dilemma for more than 100 years and why all three parties have a manifesto commitment finally to make progress on reforming the other place.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: I wonder whether the Deputy Prime Minister has noticed that if proportional representation is used for a reformed House of Lords, the Liberal Democrats will almost always hold the balance of power in the other place. Does he intend to make being Deputy Prime Minister a job for life?
The Deputy Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, in a House of Lords without any elections of any description whatever, no party has an overall majority in any event, so a balance of power in a reformed House of Lords is no different from the status quo.
Edward Leigh: Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of us who have to support his and the Government’s measures night after night cannot understand why, when the country is in such crisis, he is prepared to invoke the Parliament Act and gridlock essential legislation in the other place? Will he invoke the Tory principle of gradualism, ditch those radical proposals and come back with something much more modest?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I do not know what could be more gradualist than a proposal that would start in 2015 and not be complete until 2025. Many of the options for transition that we set out in the White Paper could not reasonably be accused of going too fast. We totally accept that a change on this scale, given that it has been discussed for more than 100 years, needs to be done carefully and incrementally.
Yet for all the scepticism, Nick Clegg was insistent that the timetable for the changes was on course. He said in reply to an inquiry from Tory MP Anne McIntosh:
"The timetable is that the Joint Committee of both Houses first needs to complete its work, and we hope that it will do so in the early stages of next year, with a view to the Government then publishing a Bill in the second Session in order to see the first steps in a reformed House of Lords and the first elections taking place in 2015."