Last night’s well-telegraphed government defeat in the Lords, on the proposed household benefit cap in the Welfare Reform Bill, is a bad omen for ministers as they contemplate the forthcoming orgy of detailed legislating in the Upper House.
This is the 29th defeat inflicted on ministers by their lordships (according to this invaluable site run by the UCL Constitution Unit) and there seems a growing prospect of many more before the Parliamentary year is out. Peers have one more day of report stage debate on that bill, but then it’s the Health and Social Care Bill, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill and the Scotland Bill – all bills which where different groups of peers, approaching the legislation from different angles, plan pitched battles.
The first point to note is that this was a defeat inflicted primarily because Lib Dem peers rebelled or abstained – their normally solid voting bloc split into 39 voting with the government, 26 against and 26 not voting. Labour and the Conservatives both managed a respectable turnout of their peers – each group voting the party line, with very similar numbers of non-voters (67 Conservative peers and 64 Labour did not vote).
And the crossbenchers, often a key factor in government defeats, split more or less evenly on this occasion, with 41 voting with the government and 38 against. Five Bishops and a sprinkling of “others” voted against the government as well.
The voting figures reflect Labour’s numbers advantage – 239 peers, compared to the Conservatives’ 219. When the Conservatives and the 91 Lib Dems combine the Coalition can normally muster a comfortable majority – although it can be trumped by the 187 crossbenchers, on the rare occasions when they all or mostly vote in one direction.
Last night the Lib Dem dissidents included several eminent figures – former leader Lord Ashdown, SDP founder Lady Williams, former SDP leader Lord Maclennan and the former Chair of the Social Security Select Committee (as it then was) Lord Kirkwood. More humble figures rebel with more confidence when they are following such party elders into the lobbies. And, as we know from the Commons, those who rebel once become far more likely to repeat the trick.
So the government’s prospects for a whole flotilla of major bills now depends on the Lib Dem whips’ ability to re-assert party discipline – and some senior figures seem quite content at what one called “last night’s controlled detonation”. But the other factor is the possibility of a big net vote against the government by crossbenchers – a distinct possibility when the big votes come at report stage on the Legal Aid Bill and the Health and Social Care Bill. That could result in many more defeats even when the Lib Dems don’t split.