Leading article: Gloomy prospects for Lords reform

 

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The Coalition is enduring its most torrid phase since coming to power nearly two years ago. The storms are about to intensify as Conservative MPs flex their muscles over proposals to reform the House of Lords. Although there is a strong case for a democratically elected second chamber, the already noisy internal dissent is justified. Constitutional reform is never easy at the best of times. This is not the best of times, with the many consequences of an economic crisis the overwhelming concern of voters.

More importantly, major changes to the constitution can be introduced only from a position of unambiguous strength. Nick Clegg is not about to make his attempt to climb the political equivalent of Mount Everest from such a position. Instead he makes his ascent without the enthusiastic support of most cabinet ministers and as a result of the hastily signed Coalition Agreement.

There are worrying echoes with the referendum on the alternative vote that was sadly lost almost a year ago. Then the compromise was too stark to be credible. No party, including the Liberal Democrats, was especially enthusiastic about AV. The convoluted voting system was proposed as a result of expedient compromise. Now Mr Clegg plans to devour large amounts of parliamentary time on a project with noble motives that appears similarly doomed.

The recent past provides a warning. When he was made Leader of the House in 2001, Robin Cook was determined to reform the Lords, regarding it as his defining mission. He got nowhere in far more propitious circumstances. There were fewer economic distractions and Labour had won a landslide, at least theoretically pledged to reform the upper house. Not surprisingly, in the more fraught context in which Mr Clegg makes his moves, the proposals show signs of fatal compromise. To take one example, the proposal that members of the upper house should be elected for 15 years is a guaranteed way of making MPs in the Commons feel fragile by comparison.

The proposals need further revision and the process of scrutiny has not even begun. With good cause Mr Clegg has made constitutional reform a priority, but an ascent of Everest is best with clear skies. For the Coalition, conditions have never been so dark.

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