Now is the time for Theresa May to abolish the House of Lords

John Rentoul
Theresa May called the election to pave a clear path for Brexit – the House of Lords could stand in her way again: AP

Ben Gummer, George Freeman and John Godfrey have probably finished most of their work on the Conservative manifesto, which will be published on Monday 8 May. They are the little-known people who do all the hard work before the top people – the Prime Minister, her chiefs of staff and the Chancellor – come in and rewrite it.

Gummer is the Cabinet Office minister who was charged with progress-chasing the 544 promises in the last manifesto, the one that is now being junked to give Theresa May her own mandate from the British people. Freeman, the MP for Mid Norfolk, is head of the Downing Street Policy Board, and Godfrey is head of the Downing Street Policy Unit. They will have done all the boring bits of dropping pledges that May wishes hadn’t been made last time, such as ruling out increases in National Insurance contributions, and of making sure that all the interests that need to be appeased have the right form of words in there somewhere.

By now they should have got the parts in square brackets, the sections that still need top-level decisions, down to the last few. One will be the triple lock on pensions. The Treasury hates it, because it is a ratchet, making sure the state pension always eats up a larger share of national resources. Philip Hammond, if he can’t get rid of it, would like to downgrade it to a double lock, but I suspect May will keep it: not least because inflation is expected to be higher over the next five years, which means the state pension won’t rise in real terms.

I wonder what Gummer, Freeman and Godfrey have done with one promise that ought to be in the draft manifesto, though – House of Lords reform, or even abolition. This is the Brexit election, and May said she was calling it because of opposition to Britain leaving the EU in Parliament. “At this moment of enormous national significance there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division.” Labour had “threatened to vote against the deal”, the “Liberal Democrats have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill” and “unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way”.

The election will extinguish the possibility of opposition in the Commons to the final terms of Brexit. May already had a majority among MPs. After 9 June she is likely to have a larger one, and one consisting of Conservative MPs who will have been elected explicitly on a mandate for whatever form of Brexit she negotiates.

But what about the House of Lords? She is right that some peers are dedicated opponents of Brexit and will oppose it come what may. Although, when it came to the Bill to invoke Article 50, the Lords made some amendments (guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens here, for example), but then rolled over and voted for it anyway when the Commons took them out again.

But May cannot be sure that the Lords would roll over again in 18 months’ time, when it has to vote on the terms of Britain’s departure. The election certainly strengthens her hand, because of the Salisbury convention, which is that the House of Lords does not oppose measures that are in the governing party’s manifesto. But the upper house has been less willing to abide by convention of late. It overturned George Osborne’s plans to cut tax credits for working families in October 2015, for example, even though the convention is that the Lords does not oppose financial measures.

You do not have to be a fantasist to imagine a succession of distinguished pro-EU peers lining up at the end of next year to condemn the Prime Minister’s failure to reach agreement with the EU negotiators and to say the national interest in serious times requires exceptional measures. The House of Lords could still be the part of May’s path to Brexit that crumbles to expose a sheer drop to the sea.

It seems quite likely – especially after Wednesday’s disastrous dinner attended by May, David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission – that the Brexit negotiations will go badly, and that Britain will leave the EU without any formal agreement.

One of May’s arguments for the early election is that a large majority would make her more powerful in her negotiations. If so, its effect is small. In the end the terms depend on what the EU 27 are prepared to offer us, and whether May decides it is acceptable. As Stephen Bush put it in the New Statesman, “Whether May’s majority is one, ten or 100, she will face the same trade-offs and the same partners with the same incentives.”

If there is no deal, it is hard to judge how the Lords might respond. Given May’s caution, there is a strong argument that she should pre-empt the risk of crisis by putting Lords reform in her manifesto.

She could promise to reduce the power of the Lords to delay constitutional changes, which would include Brexit, or if she were really bold she could abolish the legislative functions of the Lords altogether. I used to think that an upper chamber elected on a proportional system would be a useful check on the lower house, but I now think that this is like designing a traffic system to guarantee gridlock, and that there is nothing the Lords can do that the Commons shouldn’t do itself.

I doubt if May will put Lords reform – let alone abolition – in the manifesto. The counter argument is that it is difficult. Look at the spatchcock system Tony Blair ended up with in 1999, even with a majority in the Commons of 179.

However, there is a risk that if she does not, she will face a showdown with the House of Lords later and she will regret having failed to take her chance when she could.

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