When one of your predecessors, idols and key architects of the Thatcher revolution, announces that he is going to vote for an amendment proposed by a bishop who has just described your cunning plan to take a lump out of the incomes of thee millions of the poorest workers as “morally indefensible” you surely know the game is up. Even if you’re George Osborne.
It wasn’t that the declaration that the “great harm” of Osborne’s tax credit cuts would be to the lowest paid, was anything but blindingly obvious. It was that Lord Lawson, no less, was making it. True he bought into the highly debatable proposition that the Lords had no right actually to vote down the proposal. The thinner the ice ministers were crossing the more they clung to the improbable argument that by daring to vote down the proposal –contained in a mean little statutory instrument usually reserved for trivial changes—the Lords would unleash a constitutional crisis dwarfing the abdication and the showdown over Lloyd George’s 1909 budget rolled into one.
The Leader of the House, Baronness Stowell, having drawn the shortest of all straws as the government’s spokesman, was reduced to encouraging the many opponents of the measure to vote for the Bishop of Portsmouth’s motion attacking it but not actually trying to defeat it. Along the lines of:”If you go with the Bishop, George will be jolly nice and listen to you. But if you pass a motion delaying it, he’ll be very cross indeed”
The debate was by the Lords’s super-staid standards positively rowdy. There were interruptions, heckles, sardonic collective “ahas”—when Lady Stowell had admitted that the Baronnesses Hollis and Meacher’s - both in the end triumphantly successful - motions were not "fatal". The dangerous mood was intensified by the anarchic practice by which the Lords decide by a collective shout who speaks next—tending to lead to two peers of a certain age on their feet at once, unaware that someone else has been called instead.
Sadly for Osborne most of his arguments were blown open in a mesmerising speech by Lady Hollis. She was helped by former Labour Lords leader Lord Richard pointing to an impressive constitutional precedent. And by the Archbishop of York not seeing much wrong with voting the measure down. But her speech had passion, examples of real people likely to be devastated by the cuts, and at times wit. As in how the government’s impact analysis wasn’t about impact and didn’t have any analysis. Meacher/Hollis one. Osborne nil.
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