Lords reform triggers intra-coalition mayhem

I don't know how much is high constitutional principle - and how much is the urge to kick Nick Clegg - but next week's unveiling of proposals for Lords reform by a joint committee of MPs and peers looks certain to trigger a new bout of intra-coalition mayhem.

Last night's meeting of the Conservative 1922 Committee, the forum for Tory backbenchers, suggested deep opposition in the rank and file. And when an uber-loyalist like new-intake backbencher Mark Menzies warns he has some concerns (he denies reports he's threatened to quit as a parliamentary aide), you know feelings are running high.

On Monday morning, at 11am, the former Labour leader of the Lords, Ivor Richard, will announce the detailed proposals of the joint parliamentary committee he's been presiding over. The object of this exercise has been to try to assemble as much consensus as possible around the detailed proposals (how many bishops? how should elected members of the Upper House be phased in? etc) to smooth their way onto the statute book.

It is expected to form the basis of a Lords Reform Bill in the Queen's Speech in May - and then battle will commence.

A little after Lord Richard, a group of pro-reform MPs, including new intake Tories Laura Sandys and Gavin Barwell, and an assortment of Labour, Lib Dem and crossbench parliamentarians, will give a press conference of their own, under the slogan "Time for elections to the Lords". I wouldn't be surprised if the anti camp had their own event as well…..

I've blogged about the shape of the battle to come before, but the events at the 1922 Committee make it clear that it's Ed Miliband who'll decide the fate of Lords reform. If there's a big Tory uprising against, it will only pass the Commons with the aid of Labour votes.

So expect a long and fractious battle with the detailed committee stage fought out on the floor of the whole House - as is the practice for major constitutional measures - which will tax even the considerable diplomatic skills of Nick Clegg's Conservative deputy, Mark Harper, who'll have the duty of shepherding the bill through.

One major battle looks set to be over whether a referendum is needed before the Lords can be reshaped. Some Labour voices have been raised in favour of this - not least that of former Lord Chancellor Jack Straw.

And the prospect of a national campaign, highlighting coalition divisions around a constitutional issue which most people don't care about, must attract Labour strategists.

But the prospect of a referendum on the future of the Lords will raise an uncomfortable question for all the big parties - if the public can be consulted on this, why not on Britain's membership of the EU? Will that argument be the trump card which silences Tory dissidents, or will it be a joker, changing the rules of the game to the delight of the eurosceptics?

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