Opinion: Why scrapping Lords Reform is ultimately a disaster for Cameron

Many of the more right-of-centre newspapers are declaring that the government calling time on Lords Reform is a victory for Cameron personally. Iain Martin’s piece summarises this thesis.

I would argue the precise opposite. I think the whole episode has been a disaster for Cameron and damaging to the Conservative party overall, albeit in a minor way, at least when you take the fact that their only even vaguely electable possible leader has been politically debased out of the equation.

A question that has hung around the neck of Cameron since the near miss of the 2010 election is this: would the Tories have got a parliamentary majority by being more right wing, traditionally Conservative or was the Cameroonian “detoxification” process just not carried far enough to sway swing voters? This is an important yet tricky question to answer because a) it’s entirely in the realm of the theoretical and b) it calls every aspect of Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative party into question.

Cameron became leader of the Tories at a time when the world economy was riding a wave that a lot of learned people hypothesised would go on forever. After the crash of 2007 however, the world changed. The idea amongst Tories that they would accept a Blair Mark II became less tolerable.

As happens always during times of crisis, the Tories as a centre-right party were bound to move, almost unconsciously, to the right. This made Cameron’s project tricky. As luck would have it, he was handed a golden opportunity with the arrival of the Coalition: he could complete his modernising project, stealing the centre ground from Labour while using the Lib Dems as cover with the right of his party. Instead, he has missed that opportunity completely and thus handed Labour the impetus for a victory in 2015 with a series of unforced errors.

The idea that Cameron can simply divorce himself from the Coalition and indeed his whole modernising project is the fantasy of a coterie of right wing journalists. By taking the Lords Reform Bill as far as he did (he is Prime Minister when all is said and done), and then dropping it when his backbenchers threw their toys out of the pram, demonstrates nothing more clearly than his inability to control his own party. Add to that the rumour that some of the rebels might get handed PPS jobs and Cameron’s message to his backbenchers appears to be clear: if there’s some legislation I put forward you don’t like too much, go ahead and vote it down, no worries. Perhaps there’s a government job in there somewhere for you.

Another side of the whole Lords Reform episode is that it has made Ed Miliband look like a genius to the Parliamentary Labour Party. A lot of them would have been insistent on voting against the Second Reading as it looked like their only chance of getting rid of boundary changes. Instead, Labour voted for the Bill and the boundaries still got dropped, causing champagne corks to hit the roof at Labour HQ.

Ed now looks like some sort of political guru, all because Cameron couldn’t control his own party or banked on the idea that somehow when you suffer a loss that comes with a wink and a nod then it’s not really loss. Unfortunately for David Cameron, when it’s your government a loss really is a loss. And whatever he feels about Lords Reform, and I suspect it’s not very much one way or the other, the days of reckoning for him are just ahead as Tory backbenchers have been given a green light to do whatever they like in the days ahead.

* Nick Tyrone is a liberal writer. He blogs at nicktyrone.com and is an associate director at CentreForum.

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  • I think the other thing it means is that there is now no chance of any kind of electoral accommodation between the coalition parties in 2015 (or whenever). The Tories will attempt to wipe the Lib Dems off the political map.

  • Traditional Tories (“Right wingers”) might think that Cameron inhibited or prevented a Tory majority in 2010. They may also think that removing Cameron might allow them to “move right” and gain more support. They would do well to study the lessons from those within the Lib Dems who wanted to blame Charles Kennedy for “not doing as well as he should” in the election of 2005, with the result that they called for a move to the right. The results are plain for all to see in 2012.

  • @Tim13: Although thi sis a bit off topic, lets not reinvent Charles Kennedy. The move from left to centre had already begun when he was leader. Vis the adoption of the Huhne agenda of choice and diversity of provision over the SLD agenda of big government – also it was CK who began the process of dropping the 50p rate as a policy. While it happened under Ming Campbell, Campbell basically inhetrited the project started by Kennedy.

  • Yes, Ex, well aware of the points you make. I remember some of the manoeuvrings that went on when Paddy stood down. And we can hardly describe Paddy as the most “left” Lib Dem ever, can we? Are you “Ex” anything in particular that you would care to share?

  • @LiberalEye

    Agree with much of what you say, but let’s not get carried away by the austerity stuff; with so much of it to come in future years, and much of it would have been done by Labour (+ or – a few quid) that it’s actually hard to blame Osborne or the coalition for the continuing and never ending meltdown in the euro markets that take so much of our exports and contributes (or doesn’t) to growth.

    I fully agree we should never have traded AV and HOL for tuition fees, NHS, free schools etc, but with so many red bookers involved, it was almost inevitable – particularly as the Tories remain so internally divided

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 9th Aug '12 - 12:25am

    “Ed Miliband look like a genius to the Parliamentary Labour Party”

    A Labour acquaintance of mine certainly was expressing exactly that sentiment to me.

    But I’m not sure in the long-run it is such a coup for Laboor .

    So, they saved 20 seats. To how many General Elections will that make a difference? In 1979-2010, twenty fewer Labour seats would not have changed who formed a government on any occasion (except maybe in 2010 Tories try to go ahead without us?). 20 backbench seats that will probably change the course of history not one bit. Labour were bought prety cheap. For that they let go the prize of an Upper House that would actually reflect the overall non-conservative majoirty.

    If I were the Tories I would think about what else they could offer us in the next 2 years that could bring boundary changes back into play. It might be something Labour like even less.

  • If I were the Tories I would think about what else they could offer us in the next 2 years that could bring boundary changes back into play. It might be something Labour like even less.

    I’m pretty sure your Labour supporting acquaintance will have an interesting discussion with you about Lib Dem principled politics when he reads that……

  • Peter Watson 9th Aug '12 - 10:18am

    @Antony Hook
    “Labour were bought prety cheap. For that they let go the prize of an Upper House that would actually reflect the overall non-conservative majoirty. ”
    Labour did vote for the bill with far fewer rebels and abstentions than our coalition partners, and could probably have been bought quite cheaply with the offer of a referendum (as in their manifesto and as offered by Clegg to Cameron). The bill did pass its second reading. Nobody was given the opportunity to vote for or against a programme motion. Opponents of the bill have not been given the opportunity to make fools of them selves with time-wasting fillibustering tactics. To me it appears that Clegg and Cameron lost the heart for the fight. I’d expect it from Cameron since the biggest opposition is from his own party, but why wasn’t Clegg stronger.

  • Peter Watson 9th Aug '12 - 10:34am

    @Antony Hook
    “If I were the Tories I would think about what else they could offer us in the next 2 years that could bring boundary changes back into play. It might be something Labour like even less.”
    Pardon? Do we agree with the boundary changes or not? Are they linked to Lords reform or not? Do we have any principles on this?

  • It’s curtains for Cameron unless he can come up with some spiffing wheeze, but as for Ed being a genius, he may appear so to his members, but he has to appeal to a whole raft of floaters to get anywhere come 2015.
    If his right wing don’t defect to Ukip, Cam should defect to LibDems and bring his supporters with him, which would then put Clegg in place to be acting PM for the final 12-18 months of this Parliament, and in place to offer Cam DPM in a LibDem govt. Ok, so I have been out in the sun…

  • Peter Watson 10th Aug '12 - 10:06am

    @Antony Hook
    “The politics of doing deals with another party is not unprincipled if you apply good principles in your deal making.”
    Indeed – there’s no point in supporting a minority party if one is not prepared to work with other parties in order to achieve one’s aims. My problem with this particular coalition is that Lib Dems seem to have sacrificed their principles in order to be in it. Tuition fees was not a good start, and when so many subsequent actions appear contrary to pronouncements before the election and the wishes of voters and members of the party, then it is not a good advertisement for multi-party politics.

    “Labour seem to think that co-operating with another party is inherently evil in all circumstances.”
    Evidence? The Labour Party has been in coalitions/pacts before, nationally and locally. Labour are not in this coalition: they are the opposition. And since the coalition is broadly implementing tory policies and blaming the previous Labour administration for all that is wrong in the world, I would not expect them to enthusiastically jump into bed with us. Even so, with far fewer rebels than the tories, Labour did vote for the Lords Reform bill which passed its 2nd reading. On the face of it, Labour wanted to honour manifesto commitments to put the reforms to a referendum, and to have the time to scrutinise the fundamental points openly and in more detail (e.g. Labour, Lib Dems, and a Commons vote had previously backed a 100% elected upper chamber, not the 80% in the Bill). The Bill was dropped because the majority coalition parties could not get behind it and we should not blame the minority opposition for the failure of Clegg and Cameron to hold their nerve.

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