Who are the primates?

The debate in both Houses yesterday, when the Government came forward with its White Paper and draft Bill for Lords Reform, concentrated to a large and understandable extent on the relationship between the Commons and Lords.

This morning I’ve been watching the discussion in the Lords Constitution Committee, where Members questioned the Deputy Prime Minister at some length on this point.  In brief, everybody seems to be in favour of retaining the “primacy” of the Commons, and is worried that a legitimate, democratic, second chamber could threaten or even remove it.

Of course, previous analysis, as well as the current proposals, have addressed this point very fully.  Not only do other full democracies have simple mechanisms to prevent gridlock, but the Government’s proposals acknowledge that the different electoral system, the long non-renewable terms, and the fact that there would never be a more recent mandate for the Lords as a whole, would maintain the current political asymmetry.  If you add in the Parliament Acts, the relationship between the Prime Minister and senior Ministers with the Commons, and the longstanding restriction of financial matters to MPs, the safeguards are pretty formidable.

Retaining primacy is an additional argument for those who favour maintaining some 20% of the new House as appointed, since that too would distinguish it from the fully elected Commons.  It is, therefore, curious to hear Labour spokespeople – who are committed to 100% elections – also arguing that the draft Bill would undermine that primacy.

Naturally, this will all be a matter for the forthcoming Joint Committee of Peers and MPs to address.  However, one aspect intrigues me.  What if these proposals, based fair and square on the previous work of successive governments, and now so firmly endorsed by the Prime Minister and the Coalition Cabinet, eventually leads to a Bill approved by MPs? 

Will then all those of my noble colleagues who have been huffing and puffing about primacy simply accept the conclusion of the Commons?  Or will Peers be allowed a self-serving veto, to save their own political skins?  Either the House of Commons has primacy, or it doesn’t.  Discuss!

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