Fans of the West Wing might remember a scene in which Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) is working on a piece of legislation with a Congressman. During a heated discussion, the Congressman turns to Lyman and asks why opponents of the NRA (National Rifle Association) don’t simply join the Association en masse, turn up to its next AGM and vote through whatever they want.
The point being made is that numbers count. And whoever is responsible for the membership of a club or organisation is in prime position to influence the agenda in whatever way they want.
As is the case with David Cameron. The Prime Minister is facing a challenge to his authority – and that of the House of Commons – from the House of Lords, which is threatening to block government efforts to cut tax credits. This amidst concern that’s been expressed by politicians of all parties that the cuts could hit the poorest hardest.
The point being made by the Prime Minister, the Government, and Speaker of the House (Rt Hon John Bercow) is that the Commons voted the cuts through. So the Lords should acquiesce to the will of the elected lower house – particularly given the centuries long tradition that the Lords don’t intervene on matters of finance. The problem for Mr Cameron is that maths isn’t on his side. Labour and the Lib Dems have the numerical advantage in the Lords and can block the plans if they so wish.
It is a legitimate concern that tax credit cuts could hit the worst off. Equally there remains a need for a tight grip on public spending. But if the Prime Minister thinks he can solve his problem by threatening – or actually – adding more numbers to the Lords, he should quickly think again.
As noted previously, the House of Lords is one of, if not the, biggest upper chambers in Europe. Efforts to reform it by the Lib Dems during the coalition years were swiftly shot down in the last parliament. And thus it’s carried on as before.
Adding 150 or more peers to the upper house would set a dangerous precedent. What would then stop a future Labour government adding another 50 of its loyalists to the ranks of the Lords in order to get their way? Before you knew it the Lords would have grown to even more gargantuan proportions, accompanied by greater cost to the public purse.
Faced with the challenge to democratically given mandate, if the Prime Minister wants to change the rules of the game, he needs to think smaller rather than bigger. It might be time to dust off Nick Clegg’s plans if Mr Cameron fears further challenges to his authority from the House of Lords.