British coalition rocked by House of Lords u-turn
LONDON: Britain’s government on Monday dropped plans for a mainly elected upper house of parliament, sparking one of the biggest crises in Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition formed two years ago.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said Cameron’s Conservative party had broken the contract with his Liberal Democrats by failing to back their flagship House of Lords reforms.
In a retaliatory move which will put severe strain on the partnership, Clegg announced that his centrist party will now drop its support for key Conservative plans to alter the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies.
“The Conservative party is not honouring the commitment to Lords reform and as a result part of our contract has now been broken,” Clegg told a press conference.
“So I have told the prime minister that when, in due course, parliament votes on boundary changes for the 2015 election, I will be instructing my party to oppose them.”
Conservatives have long claimed that the current boundaries give them a disadvantage at the polls, and their junior partners’ move to block the changes is one of the most serious blows to the coalition since it formed in May 2010.
A rift between the parties has widened in recent months over several issues, which include Lords reform but also Britain’s relationship with the European Union.
Clegg had championed plans to remove the last hereditary peers from the House of Lords — an institution that dates back to the 14th century — and reduce its 800-strong membership to around 450.
“An unelected House of Lords flies in the face of democratic principles and public opinion,” he told journalists as he announced that the reforms had been dropped.
“It makes a mockery of our claim to be the mother of all democracies.”
The majority of the House of Lords’ members are appointed by political parties, while the rest include 26 archbishops and bishops and 92 hereditary peers.
Clegg has previously argued that Britain is the only country in the world apart from Lesotho to have a completely unelected upper parliamentary chamber.
Both the Lib Dems and the Conservatives promised changes to the Lords at the last general election in May 2010, along with the opposition Labour party, but it is the Lib Dems who have been the strongest proponents.
Critics argue that elected membership of the upper house, which scrutinises legislation before it passes, would undermine the supremacy of the House of Commons.
Last month the coalition was forced to drop a key parliamentary vote designed to speed up the Lords reforms after around 100 Conservative rebels threatened to vote against it.
On Monday, Clegg accused Conservatives of trying to “pick and choose” policies agreed with the Lib Dems when they formed the coalition.
“Coalition works on mutual respect — it is a reciprocal arrangement, a two-way street,” he said.
The Lib Dems were themselves forced in late 2010 to abandon their popular election pledge to scrap university tuition fees as part of their deal with the Conservatives, and have lost many supporters as a result.
Clegg said he hoped the Lib Dems would be able to return to the issue of Lords reform after the next general election, which the party will be contesting separately from the Conservatives.
The next election is not due until 2015 and Conservatives have been hoping to use the time to build a majority, but the polls would have to be held earlier if they lose the support of the Liberal Democrats.
Cameron also faces pressure from London mayor Boris Johnson, with reports in the British media saying that Johnson could mount a leadership challenge on the back of his popularity during the London Olympics.
In addition he faces a dicey by-election after lawmaker Louise Mensch, who played a leading role in parliamentary hearings over the phone-hacking scandal, announced Monday that she is quitting to move to New York with her family.
The Conservatives are around ten points behind Labour in major opinion polls.