Britain’s two Houses of Parliament are squaring up to one another, as the Lords emerge as the only effective opposition to Cameron and his Conservatives, writes Shaun Connolly.
A peculiarly British, real life Game of Thrones battle is raging at Westminster as the two great Houses of Parliament, the Commons and the Lords, prepare for all out political war against one another.
The impossibly ornate Lords chamber, itself dominated by a massive golden throne from which the Queen opens parliament, has emerged as the only effective opposition to majority Tory rule in the traditional seat of power, the Commons, as it seeks to shut down the ideologically driven ambitions of Conservative prime minister David Cameron.
In a uniquely British paradox, the upper house, one of the most curiously undemocratic legislative bodies in the Western world, is now regularly slapping down the popularly elected Commons on an almost daily basis.
The defiance has reached such extremes that the greatest constitutional clash Britain has witnessed for more than a century is imminent as both Houses spoil for the fight ahead.
Downing Street sources issued the darkest threats about flooding the chamber with hundreds of new Tory peers to tame it, or even suspending the Lords indefinitely, if it dared defy the government over a swingeing €6bn package of welfare cuts to tax credits, which critics said would have made 3m families worse off and pushed 600,000 children into poverty.
In the end, the Lords stopped just short of torpedoing the measures completely, but in voting to delay the cuts for three years they have left the centre-piece of Tory financial policy terminally holed below the water line and slowly sinking, with Number 10 denouncing the move as a “constitutional outrage” and ominously ordering a “rapid review” of the powers of the upper house.
The next flashpoint is legislation to exclude Scottish and Northern Irish MPs from deciding on a swathe of parliamentary legislation.
Known as English Votes for English Laws, the Tory push to further bait the SNP rejoices under the acronym EVEL — only the Conservatives could knowingly decide to unleash EVEL on Scotland — and the Lords are furious about what they consider an insulting lack of consultations on the issue and may well move to try and strike it down.
How different from the timidity of Ireland’s own Upper House which has been too scared and tightly controlled to even delay a bill for more than half a century of inaction.
The Lords undoing is in its very make-up, comprised as it is of a rum-bunch of nearly 800 souls containing some 650 party appointees, 92 hereditary peers who are merely there by accident of birth, and 26 Church of England bishops.
The credibility crisis stems from none of the peers having a single voter between them — apart, ironically, from some of the 92 hereditaries, who get together to elect a replacement from their blue blood ranks when one of them dies without an heir.
Yet the Lords have emerged as the only effective brake on the newly energised Tories, who are intent on forcing through €16bn worth of welfare cuts and, seemingly, doing all in their power to push Scotland out of the union with contempt, according to the sidelined and smarting nationalists.
Labour is still too shaken by the scale of its shock defeat at the May general election to mount a coherent opposition to the Conservatives, who scrapped a surprise 12-seat majority in the Commons on just 37% of the popular vote.
Indeed, with such a maverick, untested leader in the form of Jeremy Corbyn, who was foisted on a hostile parliamentary party by a surge of left-wing, grassroots activism, the Labour benches look more likely to turn on each other than take the fight to the Tories.
And so their Lordships’ house has stepped into the breach and decided to do all it can to frustrate Cameron’s austerity agenda.
Being virtually the only country in the world without a written constitution, British democracy operates on a framework of conventions and precedents, some dating back centuries, so the lines of control between the two houses are often blurred and open for interpretation.
But storm clouds now gather over the mock-gothic façade of the Palace of Westminster as a ‘battle royal’ looms — Cameron has been accused of politicising the Queen (who also just so happens to be his fifth cousin) over the threat to unleash hundreds of new Tory lords to bring the turbulent chamber to heel. Her majesty will have to sign-off on the nominees.
Big Ben has not looked down on such a scene of parliamentary poison since 1909 when the Lords, then dominated by the Tory land-owning aristocracy, voted down Liberal chancellor of the exchequer David Lloyd George’s “people’s budget” that introduced a welfare safety net for the unemployed and the elderly across Britain and a pre-independent Ireland.
Now, a House of Lords with an in-built anti-Tory majority sees itself as the defender of the welfare-receiving classes against the cut-happy ideology of a Conservative-controlled Commons.
Lloyd George prevailed and broke the will of the Lords (with the crucial support of the Irish Parliamentary Party who used the crisis to end the Tory aristocracy’s block on Home Rule) by ensuring the upper chamber accepted it could never again vote down a money bill sent from the Commons or be banished into history.
The wily Welshman then exploited his newfound executive power by selling off life peerages to the highest bidder as a nice little earner and the upper house has rarely troubled Downing Street since.
Now, however, nobody is playing by the rules. The Lords insist they could cripple the welfare cuts because the Tories tried to sneak them through the house on a technical order rather than a money bill. That would mean the measures would not be open for amendment by the enemies who outnumber them in the upper chamber.
All the manoeuvring and back-biting over the tax credits stand-off only add to the sense of foreboding and torrid distrust between the two wings of the British legislature.
But this upstart, undemocratic threat to the supremacy of the elected chamber could never be long tolerated by a government of any political hue.
In the end there can only be one winner, the Commons, but victory may be bought at the price of a bloody battlefield left in triumph’s wake.
Cameron, the first Tory prime minister lack a majority in the upper house, knows he has awoken the War Lords and trouble is once again rising on the political horizon.
EVEL this way comes — ensuring the Tory horror at the way the party’s programme is being treated in the Lords means Cameron’s Halloween is going to drag on much longer than just through Saturday night.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved