The year ahead in Parliament

What will 2012 bring for Westminster? No-one has ever called me Mystic Mark but, in the spirit of the season, I'll stick my neck out and make a few predictions:

JANUARY AND FEBRUARY

January and February, rather like December, will see the same odd combination of MPs twiddling their thumbs, while peers keep slogging through various big and important bills.

Ministers in the Lords will be engaged in detailed negotiation over issues like housing benefit entitlement for people in under-occupied houses (ie those with a spare bedroom or two), or the exact rules for competition in the NHS, or the entitlement to legal aid of people contesting benefits rulings.

Meanwhile, in the Commons, the whips will be endeavouring to ensure that the devil does not find work for MPs' idle hands.

There's some suggestion of a crunch euro-vote in the Commons at some point in February on moves to increase the UK's subscription to the IMF - the international emergency finance facility which bails out countries in financial trouble.

European test

I'm not clear this will actually happen - but if it does, it could provide a difficult test for the government with Labour opposing any extra contribution that could then be used to bail out eurozone economies.

Were Labour and most of the 81 Conservative euro-rebels to join forces, the government would lose.

I've been pointing out for a while that the government can't rely on its majority on issues like this, so the smart thing to do would be not to have the fight, if at all possible.

But secondly, it is a mistake to think of the 81 - the MPs who rebelled in the backbench debate calling for a referendum earlier this year - as a cohesive group, or a party within a party.

In Euroscepticism there are many mansions, and some of the 81 would be very reluctant to cast a vote that might bring down the coalition government or otherwise cause chaos.

Others wouldn't blink before doing so. What I don't doubt is that the core sceptic (and I really must find a better word) strategists will want to keep up pressure on ministers they continue to regard as a bit suspect on the European Union.

MARCH

March will see several high noon moments between the Lords and the Commons, as peers insist on the changes they have made to several big bills. With the end of the parliamentary year looming, ministers will face the prospect of making concessions or losing key legislation upon which huge effort has been lavished.

And those clashes with the upper house may shape the coalition's attitude to another key parliamentary issue for the coming year: Lords reform.

At around this time the coalition high command will need to sort out what it plans to do about their lordships.

The coalition agreement promises merely to bring forward proposals for a wholly or partly elected upper house - and those proposals, currently being scrutinised in draft by a committee of MPs and peers, will be ready to be put in a bill in the coalition's next programme of legislation.

There had been some thought that the committee doing this work would turn into a kind of endless seminar - a romper room for constitutional experts.

Deadline

But its chair, the wily Lord Richard, persuaded the committee to agree a deadline to complete its report in March.

In other words, there would be a Lords Reform Bill available to be put into the coalition's next Queen's Speech - although doubtless there will be sections where Parliament will be offered a choice on issues like the future inclusion of bishops and the proportion of elected versus appointed peers.

The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is already firing some early shots - asserting that the bill will be there.

But there are voices that warn that Lords reform could so sour the workings of the upper house that no other legislation can be got through.

Alternatively, some want a minimalist bill based of the former Liberal leader Lord Steel's bill - which tidies up the appointment process and provides a mechanism for removing the last few hereditary peers... and leaves it at that.

I doubt Mr Clegg and his party will buy that alternative. And for them, getting Lords reform into the next Queen's Speech is no minor matter.

If, as expected, peers resist it, a bill thrown out in 2012-13 could (in theory at least) be forced into law by use of the Parliament Act in 2013-14 (there's a very interesting Times law article by crossbench legal eagle Lord Pannick on this point).

But if the bill's not there, and is postponed for a year or more, there probably wouldn't be time to force it through before the next election.

Another factor is that if it does go ahead, the committee stage would be taken on the floor of the Commons, where it could become a rallying point for backbench Tory angst about the coalition - condemning the Constitutional Affairs Minister Mark Harper (or, if he's moved on, his successor) to many long weeks of battering by colleagues.

APRIL TO OCTOBER

And so to April and May. Much of April will be taken up by election campaigning.

There are elections in London, for the Mayor and Assembly, in the 32 Scottish and 22 Welsh local councils, as well as for 36 English metropolitan councils and 18 English unitary authorities - not to mention at least 11 referendums on whether or not cities should switch to government by a mayoral system.

I dwell on this at some length because the results could provoke a bit of a mid-life crisis in the coalition, particularly if the Liberal Democrats receive a mauling.

And Labour will be watching the Scottish results for some sign of an electoral revival after their drubbing at the hands of the SNP in May 2011.

Of course, what happens in local elections does not (directly at least) change the arithmetic in the House of Commons. The mathematics of the coalition will not change - but the psychology may well be profoundly influenced.

And that may manifest itself in the Queen's Speech. As I write, we don't have an exact date for the end of this session and the State Opening of Parliament to begin the next.

That may well be in part because the government wants a bit of wriggle room to get its legislation through the House of Lords without setting itself a tight deadline, which could give opponents of its various big bills some extra leverage with which to extract concessions.

Big bills

As well as Lords reform, (or not), there will probably be big bills on the welfare system, higher education, business rates, and a series of political reform issues, like a power for voters to recall MPs and a register of lobbyists.

It is also possible that a new offer on devolved powers to Scotland may surface, superseding the current Scotland Bill, which has been in limbo for rather a long time.

But I doubt we will see anything like the level of legislative heavy lifting seen in this session.

The coalition has, quite consciously, set out to front load its programme of legislation so that the voters will notice the resulting changes well before the next election. So while there will be big bills, there will not be nearly as many of them - and some may be scrutinised in draft, and fed into the parliamentary sausage machine a year later.

It is hard to predict in detail what happens after that. Much depends on which bills are introduced in what order.

But there will be a couple of important developments in the internal workings of the Commons.

The operations of the backbench business committee, which has had such a huge impact, are due to be reviewed.

MPs who have enjoyed the chance to debate prisoner voting, Hillsborough, an EU referendum, the treatment of circus animals and all the other issues it has facilitated, should beware, at least a little.

While the Leader of the House, Sir George Young, and his Lib Dem deputy, David Heath, are both convinced reformers, not everyone is an unalloyed fan of the new empowerment of backbenchers.

"Too keen on confrontational debates", murmur some voices. "Too ready to schedule debates on a Thursday on voteable motions", complain others. They might want to clip the committee's wings by limiting its powers in some way.

Backbench elections

And there's a second way in which it might be changed: half way through the Parliament - so in about June, I assume - the chair and members of the backbench committee will face re-election.

And I suspect that, having realised the power it wields, committee places and perhaps even the chair will be hotly contested.

In particular, I'd be slightly surprised if the contingent of Tory awkward squaddies on the committee remained unscathed.

In parallel with this is the move towards putting the organisation of Commons debates into the hands of a house business committee.

Like the creation of the backbench committee, this is a technical sounding change which could have a dramatic impact on the workings of the Commons.

A house business committee would decide how much time would be devoted to particular bills, which matters more than you might imagine.

In the last Parliament it was quite usual to see heavily-amended legislation hammered through the Commons in a single day's debate on "remaining stages" - report and third reading - with the result that scores of important changes were voted through unscrutinised.

Deciding the agenda

To its credit, this government has avoided that particular practice - but a more open approach to scheduling debates, something more than the normal carve-up between government and official opposition, could still produce improvements.

The key would be that the agenda for coming weeks was presented as a voteable motion - so MPs who were unhappy that not enough time was being devoted to some bill or debate could attempt to amend it.

Not everyone likes this idea. "I'm not having the business of the House decided by (shudder) Peter Bone," one upwardly mobile backbencher told me.

Some fear the government would lose the ability to put its bills before the House - defying the time-honoured maxim that the government "must get its business".

Others fear that a house business committee would amount to no more than the same old backroom dealing, but clothed with a little extra legitimacy because a few establishment grandees had been in the room when it was sealed.

But for those who want the Commons to control its own business, and not have it handed down from on high, the key will be that voteable motion.

They argue that the prospect of being over-ridden by a vote in the House will help ensure the concerns of backbenchers are not ignored.

NOVEMBER

November will see elections for the first police commissioners - the elected officials who will oversee the policy of the English and Welsh police forces - and the election day may become a kind of Super Thursday.

We may well see that big cities which opted for elected mayors in the referendums in May (see above) elect their mayors, and any by-elections resulting from MPs standing down to become mayors or police commissioners could also be held.

That extra late year encounter with the voters could provide another shock to the system - any party bruised twice in a single year could become very unhappy indeed.

And that unhappiness would be certain to manifest itself in Westminster.

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