Political Promise

The House of Lords Rejects First Coalition Bill

In Michael Indian on June 11, 2010 at 8:19 am

By Michael Indian

It makes for a momentous headline; “Coalition sustains first defeat in the House of Lords.” For a government still recovering from the recent resignation of David Laws, any obstacles to an early piece of legislation do not reflect well on their pledge to govern firmly and effectively in the “national interest.”

However, the reality appears to be far less dramatic. Far from a mass uprising in the upper chamber of Parliament, the Coalition’s Local Government Bill has fallen victim to an obscure procedural move, which prevented its second reading in the Lords.

The bill is aimed at blocking the creation of planned new unitary authorities in areas such as Norwich and Exeter. However, it will now be delayed by being sent to parliamentary officials, called Examiners, for a report. Labour peer, Lord Howarth, who proposed the motion to block the bill, justified his actions by saying it was a “hybrid” (a combination of a public and a private bill) and thus needed to be referred to the Examiners.

Whilst the Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Strathclyde, was quick to shrug off the hindrance, such a blasé response underestimates not only the significance of this event, but also the potential of such a tactic.

With the departure of Laws, the stability of the governing relationship between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has increasingly been on many people’s minds. His exodus may not have enough to “Con-Dem” the Coalition, but it certainly put a stain onto the shiny era of “new politics.”

More significantly though, the use of parliamentary procedure as a tool of political opposition may become more common. Although the Coalition holds a comfortable majority in the Commons, delays in delivering more crucial legislation, like fixed term parliaments, will harm the public’s perception of the government, for example exacerbating existing worries of instability.

Furthermore, such a tactic may find use beyond the ranks of Labour. It is impossible to imagine all MPs from both Coalition parties speaking and voting with one voice for the next five years. The Liberal Democrat abstention over issues like Trident or tuition fees may prove hard to stomach in the long run, to say nothing of further concessions that undoubtedly lie ahead. Coalition governments are built on the essence of compromise, but what tools might dissenters, on both sides, seek to use to voice their objections?

Nick Clegg and David Cameron should be cautious before they simply dismiss their first legislative setback. God is in the detail, and their marriage of political convenience may be annulled on something as simple as a technicality.


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