Lloyd George famously referred to the House of Lord’s as “Mr Balfour’s poodle” because of its in-built Conservative majority. Since the exclusion by the last Labour Government of most hereditary peers from voting rights in the Lords, no Party has had a majority in the House. This has meant that the House has been properly able to hold Governments to account and challenging the House of Commons to think again about elements of legislation.
Thus, in the last eight years of the Labour Government (from 2002 to 2010), the Government was defeated in the Lords on average 44 times per year. Not really a surprise, given that at no stage did Labour hold more than 31% of the membership of the House and a combination of the other groupings (eg Tories plus LibDems or Tories plus some crossbenchers) could easily be sufficient to out-vote Labour Peers.
With the advent of the coalition in 2010, the dynamics changed somewhat as the Government comprises two Party groupings and the rate of Government defeats fell to 24 per year.
Since the General Election in 2010, the Prime Minister has appointed 122 new members of the House of Lords and there are now 760 peers (excluding 39 who are on leave of absence or the 13 who are disqualified from sitting because they are Law Lords or MEPs).
The current breakdown (as of 31st October) is 212 Conservative (28%) plus 90 LibDems (12%), making a Government total of 302 (40%). Then there are 225 (30%) Labour peers and 208 (27%) crossbenchers and others plus 25 Bishops. As the crossbenchers and others attend less regularly than the party-affiliated peers and split on issues, there is an effective Government majority over the Opposition of 70-80.
However, it appears that this preponderance of Government peers over the Opposition is not sufficient for this Prime Minister. Rumours are swirling around the House that another list of new members is about to be announced with the figure suggested ranging from 40 to 80 new members bringing the total able to sit and vote in the House of Lords to well over 800. The vast majority of these would be Conservative, although for forms sake a quarter might be LibDems with a handful given to the Labour Party.
This has constitutional, practical and financial implications.
The constitutional implications are that it risks turning the House of Lords into a rubber stamp for the Government. It would recreate the world of “Mr Balfour’s Poodle”. However, given the hybrid nature of the coalition, I suppose this would make the House of Lords a poodle crossbreed in the manner of a labradoodle, a westiepoo or a schnoodle – perhaps the correct term would be a Cameroodle.
It is also ironic that, at a time when the Conservative element of the coalition wants to gerrymander constituency boundaries so as to reduce the number of elected MPs from 650 to 600, it is proposed that the unelected House of Lords should increase in size to well over 800.
The practical implications are not insignificant. The Lords Chamber cannot accommodate the existing numbers during Question Time and major debates – and other facilities will also be overstretched.
Similarly, there are financial implications – the extra costs of allowances and travel expenses plus the administrative and support costs of the House in servicing extra members.
However, we seem to have a Government and a Prime Minister that cannot cope with disagreement and scrutiny by the House of Lords. Twice in the last ten days – rather than risk being defeated in a vote – the Government has ignominiously cancelled its business in the House.
Presumably even an average of two defeats per month (defeats that are usually successfully reversed in the House of Commons) is too much for this Government and this Prime Minister.
So what is David Cameron’s solution?
Pack the House of Lords with more Conservative cronies and place-men and place-women. A Chamber of Cameroodles.
Don’t say you haven’t been warned:
Conservative candidate for Cameroodle peerage