Whatever Kool-Aid Michael Gove is currently drinking, I would love to give it a try. Fresh from touring the regions through the medium of accents in a recent interview, the Levelling Up Secretary has now proposed the House of Lords should join him. In a letter to Lord McFall, the Lord Speaker, he rejected the Lords’ purported support for moving to the QE II centre in 2027 whilst Parliament is being refurbished. Instead, the Lords needs to engage in some levelling up of its own, and grace a fine city like Stoke, Sunderland, or Burnley with its presence.
This is an idea that has been kicking about since the last election. Purportedly, it was popular with various elements of the Number 10 team, who saw it as an obvious and exciting way to show that politics was getting out of Westminster and connecting with the wider country. Proving that it was an idea with cross-party appeal, it was also backed by top Labour intellectual Rebecca Long-Bailey in her leadership campaign. Fortunately, Covid ensured this ludicrous, expensive, and laughably muggle-headed idea became lost in the ether – until now.
Leave for aside, for a moment, that this move will never happen. Gove can be as pompous as he likes in his letter to Lord McFall, but it is Parliament that will ultimately have to vote on the proposals to move it out of the Palace of Westminster. It is unlikely that the Commons could be made to agree with this, for reasons of cost, practicality, and precedent. But it is nigh-on impossible that the Lords would ever. The former Lord Speaker Baroness Hayman’s labelling of Gove’s ideas as “bonkeroony” was on the money and undoubtedly reflects the sentiments of most members. Well, asides from Lord Adonis.
Critics of the Lords would say the peers are deploying the Mandy Rice-Davies defence. Why would their Lordships want to traipse up to Stoke or Sunderland from their comfortable Mayfair pads a few times a week to collect their £300 daily attendance allowance? In the 2016/17 session, 115 peers claimed their expenses whilst failing to participate in a single debate – costing £1.3 million overall. Surely, losing out on this cash will encourage a few lazy great-great-grandsons of some obscure Victorian Cabinet ministers to retire from the House, and save taxpayers’ blushes?
Yet that argument misses the inevitable huge expense of moving the Lords to the Midlands or beyond. Gove played a considerable part in our exit from the European Union. Has he not noticed that his proposal has echoes of the European Parliament’s continual shuffling between Brussels and Strasbourg, an act of Euro-idiocy that comes with a cost of £88 million a year? Since this will be a temporary move, the cost won’t be as high. But millions will still be spent annually on equipping somewhere to house the House, and to move all its members and paraphernalia up there.
So why has Gove suggested this? Partially for blatant virtue-signalling. Since the Government has still not come up with a genuine, workable definition and plan for delivering whatever the hell levelling up is in its three-ish years in office so far, asides from a potted history textbook, this proposal offers the opportunity for the Government to seem like it is bothered by helping its new voters oop North, whilst doing little of meaningful value. I’m sure seeing 800-odd ermine-clad peers moving to join them is exactly what the voters of Stoke or Sunderland are looking for as food prices and energy bills spike.
But there is also the potential that this former President of the Oxford Union, Times leader writer, and self-confessed fan of Tony Blair is playing a political game far too clever for his own good. The Government has a newfound enthusiasm for picking fights, whether that be with the EU, ‘leftie lawyers’, or even Vladimir Putin. As the Lords looks set to threaten upcoming pieces of legislation, Gove may well hope to paint their Lordships as a class of out-of-touch villains, threatening the Government’s efforts to deliver on the public’s priorities.
Unfortunately for Gove, it won’t work. For the average voter, the House of Lords is an irrelevance, which, if ever thought of at all, is considered a home for party cronies, senile apparatchiks, and dodgy donors. Moving our upper House to the North won’t change that. It also can’t be thought of as a serious effort at improving the life chances of those above Watford Gap. If this is the best our Levelling Up Secretary can come up with, then the political impresario who did so much good at Education has seriously lost his mojo.