Clegg: peers are holding Government hostage

Nick Clegg faces a fresh crisis after his plans for sweeping reform of the House of Lords were savaged in a heated private meeting yesterday with peers.

In acrimonious clashes, they warned the Deputy Prime Minister that they would fight his proposals every step of the way.

One Tory MP joined the attack at the meeting, telling Mr Clegg that the issue could “paralyse” the coalition.

The Cabinet is expected to back moves to create an upper chamber that is 80 per cent elected, although some coalition ministers want to go further and make it fully elected.

The plans, likely to be set out within two months, will assume great importance for Mr Clegg if he loses the planned 5 May referendum on changing the voting system.

His critics were so strident in their opposition that Mr Clegg protested that he would not allow the Government to be held to ransom by opponents of Lords reform.

The show-down – described by one participant as “Daniel in the lion’s den” – came at a meeting between Clegg and members of a cross-party group campaigning against the plans. More than 50 peers from all major parties were present, including the former Liberal leader Lord Steel of Aikwood.

The MP for Harwich and North Essex, Bernard Jenkin, protested that overhauling the Lords would “paralyse” the coalition and that there was no demand within the Tory Party for the move.

He reminded Mr Clegg that David Cameron had described Lords reform as an issue for a Tory government only once it reached its third term in office.

Two former Tory Cabinet ministers tore into Mr Clegg’s plans. Lord Newton of Braintree called for Lords reform to be put to a public referendum, while Lord Howe of Aberavon said Mr Clegg’s description of the Lords was outdated.

A Labour peer, Lord Bilimoria, said there was no need for an elected senate challenging the supremacy of the Commons.

The former Tory MP, Baroness Knight of Collingtree, warned that the expertise of appointed peers, such as military officers and judges, would be lost if the Lords was reformed. Her argument was supported by Baron Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons.

Mr Clegg countered that there was clear public pressure for fundamental political reform in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal and did not want a “war of attrition” with peers on the subject. He told them: “It’s highly inappropriate to hold the government hostage on this.”

Meanwhile, the prospect is growing of the referendum on replacing first-past-the-post with the alternative vote being delayed beyond May 5 because of wrangling in the Lords. The Bill establishing the plebiscite needs to pass into law by mid-February.

But peers are holding it up because of objections over moves to cut the number of MPs, which are also included in the measure.

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