Discussing reform of the House of Lords

During the past few weeks, I have done a number of media interviews on reform of the Lords and on myHouse of Lords House of Lords (Peerage Nominations) Bill (see the previous post).  I also took part in a panel discussion at the Institute for Government on reform of the Lords.  I was the only one making the case for the existing House and incremental reform.

The session was filmed and can be watched here.

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Reforming the House of Lords

In recent weeks, the issue of reform of the House of Lords has been on the political agenda.  It has _39082269_lordsstill_300 achieved prominence because of Gordon Brown’s report on the UK’s future, including the proposal to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a chamber representing the nations and regions.  Labour leader Keir Starmer has endorsed the proposal at least to the extent of proposing to consult on it.

The proposal to replace the House of Lords with another body, or simply abolish it altogether, is nothing new.  Attempts at major reform – a ‘big bang’ approach – have failed, most recently in 1969 with the Parliament (No. 2) Bill and 2012 with the House of Lords Reform Bill.  The only substantial Government measure to make it to the statute book was the House of Lords Act 1999 removing most hereditary peers, and that was designed as stage 1 of reform rather than wholescale replacement.

The attempts failed because of practical problems – once you try to translate the proposal into detailed legislative form you run into problems.  People may agree on the principle, but not the detail.  What form of electoral system should be employed?  Should members serve for non-renewable terms?  The Government in 2012 changed the electoral system proposed in its White Paper to another one when it published its Bill.  The provision that members would serve a non-renewable term aroused opposition, given that members would be no more accountable to electors, not being subject to re-election, than members of the existing House.  Some MPs also expressed a fundamental objection, namely that an elected second chamber would challenge the primacy of the first.  In both 1969 and 2012, the government’s legislation failed to clear the Commons because of concerted opposition from some determined backbenchers.

This brings us to the basic problems with proposals for reform of the Lords.  Much of the debate focuses on composition (in other words, input legitimacy) rather than the purpose of the body (output legitimacy).  The starting point should be the purpose of a second chamber.  Given that most nations don’t have one, we cannot take their purpose is given.

A second chamber does not exist in a vacuum.  My starting point is that it is precisely that, a second chamber.  Core to its existence is its relationship to the first.   Abbé Sieyès once observed that ‘If a Second Chamber dissents from the First, it is mischievous; if it agrees it is superfluous’.  He thus identified two types, the conflicting and the confirming.  He omitted a third type, the complementary chamber.  A complementary chamber is neither objectional nor superfluous if it adds value by fulfilling tasks that the first is not able to fulfil, be it because it has not the time, resources or the political will.

The case for the House of Lords is that it is a complementary chamber.  The tasks it fulfils are core to the health of the polity.  Good law is a public good.  Law shapes the lives of citizens, stipulating what they can or cannot do.  It is in interests of citizens that the law by which they are bound is as clear and justified as it can be.  The House of Commons as the elected chamber determines the principle of Bills.  It does not necessarily have the time to examine the detail.  It certainly does not have the time to consider the mass of secondary legislation generated under the authority of primary legislation.  This is where the Lords adds value, accepting that the Commons determines the ends of legislation, it focuses on the means.  It engages in detailed scrutiny of Bills and of secondary legislation, for which the Commons does not have the time or political will to undertake.  That is especially the case with secondary legislation, for which the Commons has no developed mechanism for scrutiny.  The House of Lords makes more of a difference to the detail of legislation than the House of Commons.  The difference between the two is recognized by civil servants in Bill teams, who treat the second chamber with caution, knowing that their work may be cut out, in a way that it is not at the other end of the Palace, in justifying the provisions of a Bill.

The Lords is able to add value because of the fact that is not elected – this is actually a plus in that it means members do not have to prioritize profile-raising (what I term ‘look at me’) activities, but rather can get on with detailed scrutiny that does not attract the cameras or headlines – and because of who is appointed.  Despite some members attracting criticism because they are deemed cronies of Prime Ministers or are party donors, the House is not ‘full of them’.  The House rather is characterized by a membership of experience and expertise, people who can bring an informed eye to bear on the detail of legislation in a way that MPs cannot, for reasons of time and background – they tend to be elected while young, not having had time to reach the top of a profession or gain experience leading a major company, charity or trade union.  The two Houses thus have memberships that can look at Bills from different perspectives, the Commons from a political perspective (based on what is acceptable to party and the electors) and the Lords engaging in a more forensic examination of the detailed provisions.

There is a thus a case for a complementary second chamber.  As I have argued elsewhere, there is a case for the House of Lords, including a democratic argument – see my post on Constitutional Law Matters here – but that does not mean arguing for retaining an appointed House is an argument against reform; rather it is an argument against removing the existing House and replacing it with a competing or confirming chamber, or not replacing it with anything.


There is a case for reforming the House in order to enable it to fulfil its functions more effectively.  Some of that can be achieved through changes to some of the structures and procedures.  It can also be achieved through reducing the size of the House – peers accept that the membership is too large – and reforming the appointments process.  If public trust is to be achieved, the method by which peers are appointed needs to be changed.

There is thus a case for incremental reform.  It is both desirable and achievable.  Change already has been achieved through Private Members’ Bills: the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 (enabling peers to retire, removing any peer who commits a serious offence or who fails to attend for a whole session) and the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 (extending the House’s powers to suspend a member and creating the power of expulsion).  I was responsible for drafting the first of these and now I am seeking toD-8-KqyWsAAN6Vp achieve change through another Private Member’s Bill, the House of Lords (Peerage Nominations) Bill.   You can read it here.  I was fortunate in this session’s ballot for PMBs and the Bill was given a Second Reading on 18 November.  You can read the debate here.  There was overwhelming support for Bill from all parts of the House (the Bill, in the words of one peer, was a ‘no brainer’), the only real opposition coming from the minister and a couple of backbenchers.

The Bill puts the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory basis, introduces enhanced criteria for recommending peerages (conspicuous merit, ability and willingness to contribute to the work of the House) and enabling the Commission to propose additional criteria, having regard to the diversity of the population of the United Kingdom; it also introduces greater transparency in the process, requiring party leaders to inform the Commission of the process and criteria used for making nominations; and requiring the Prime Minister in making nominations to have regard to three criteria: that the membership should be no bigger than that of the House of Commons, that at least 20 per cent of the membership should be cross-bench (that is, independent) peers, and that no one party should have an absolute majority of seats.

The Bill should be scheduled for its committee stage sometime in the New Year.  The key task is to persuade the Government that it is in its own interests to accept the Bill.   As I said at the close of my speech moving the Second Reading, ‘Good government needs an effective Parliament.  A Parliament enjoying the confidence of the public underpins the legitimacy of government.  A confident government should have no problem with embracing the provisions of the Bill.’  Good law is in everyone’s interests.

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Dispelling myths about the 1922 Committee

The Conservative 1922 Committee is very much in the news at the moment, with its chairman, SirIMG_0134 Graham Brady, getting more media coverage than the average government minister.  At such times, the media tend to refer to it as the ‘powerful’ or ‘influential’ 1922 Commitee.  The role and history of the Committee are, however, not that well known.  Some media, and indeed various textbooks, assert that (a) the 1922 Committee takes its name from the year it was formed, (b) that it was formed as a result of the Carlton Club meeting of October 1922 at which Conservative MPs voted to leave the Lloyd George coalition – indeed, I was recently contacted by two broadcasting programmes, each basically saying ‘It’s 100 years since the Carlton Club meeting at which Conservative MPs voted to end the Lloyd George coalition; could you come and talk about the history of the 1922 Committee?’; and (3) that its leading figures formed ‘the men in grey suits’ that used to tell a party leader when time was up and they had to go.  The problem with each is that it is not true.

The 1922 Committee was not formed in 1922.  It came into existence on 18 April 1923 and takes its name from the fact that it was formed by some MPs who were newly elected in the general election of November 1922.  They created the Conservative Private Members (1922) Committee.  Following the general election of December 1923, they opened membership to MPs newly returned in that election and in the following Parliament to all Conservative Private Members, but the name ‘the 1922’ stuck.

There is no link between the Carlton Club meeting and its formation.  It was not formed out of despair or dissent by backbenchers.  The motivation for its creation was more mundane.  Gervais Rentoul, the new MP for Lowestoft and a rather successful barrister with no previous parliamentary experience, found what happened in Westminster rather baffling.  There was no induction process for new MPs.  They were expected to turn up and find their own way around, not least in getting to grips with norms and procedures.  He found some other new Members shared his sense of bewilderment.  They got together and formed a body ‘for the purpose of mutual cooperation and assistance in dealing [with] political and Parliamentary questions and in order to enable new Members to take a more active interest and part in Parliamentary life’.   It was in effect a self-help group.  It was not created as a ginger group with a particular agenda.  As the minutes go on to make clear, ‘it being clearly understood that it is the intention and desire of the Committee to render every assistance to the Government and to the Party Whip in their effort to carry on the affairs of the Nation upon the sound basis of Conservative principles’.

Nor did the 1922 Committee produce ‘the men in grey suits’ who told a leader it was time to go, principally because, prior to the introduction of rules in 1965 for the election of the party leader, no leader resigned because of a visit by party grandees.  A leader occasionally resigned because of a visit by men in white smocks – their doctors (as was the case with Eden) – but not because of being told to go by a party delegation.  Some gave up because there was clear agitation by backbenchers, but it was their decision to go.  Churchill survived for a decade during which there were grumblings by backbenchers (and some frontbenchers), and some brave souls telling him he should resign, but he carried on until age and mutterings took their toll.   It is only since the introduction of the election of the party leader that the role of the executive of the 1922 Committee has become significant in forming ‘the men in grey suits’.  The role of the executive, and its chairman, has taken on a new significance in recent years, the timetable for Theresa May’s departure from No. 10 being determined by the executive and with Liz Truss announcing her resignation as Prime Minister following an hour-long meeting with Sir Graham Brady.  The impact of the 1922 on ministerial careers is more longstanding, some resigning – starting with Thomas Dugdale as minister of agriculture in 1954 – when it has become clear that they no longer enjoy the confidence of the 1922 Committee.

I wrote a short monograph (inset) to mark the 90th anniversary of the 1922 Committee in 2013 and I am now working on a book to mark its centenary next year.  It will be published by Manchester University Press.  I am not short of material.

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The winner of the October competition…

The latest caption competition was notable for its quality and is the first in the history of the competitionFd-xDp1WQAEhMmf in which every entry was in with a shout of winning.  The entries are so good that I think they all merit reproduction:

Rob Lawson: The next Bond villain and his henchman have been unveiled in London today.

Dean B: “I will now recite the alphabet while drinking a gottle of geer.”

Mark Shephard: “I know my place” (Source: ‘Class System’ sketch from 1966 with Cleese, Barker & Corbett)

Rob Falconer: Lord Norton decided he would definitely use a smaller font for his next publication

barry winetrobe: Free Lord Norton pop-up doll with every book purchase.

Dan Farmer: “And now, my glamorous assistant and I will demonstrate the subtle art of catching the Speaker’s eye…”

9cadrob: “And this Matt, is the university’s despatch box. So called because it’s from where we post out our book orders.”

Matthew Kay: “I have heard people are trying to short the Pound but shortening the Lords is too far!”


By a short head, the winner is Barry Winetrobe.  Every other entry merits a commendation.  If the winner would like to get in touch, a publication – possibly one of those in the picture! – will be on its way.

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October caption competition

Last month was a sombre one with the death of the Queen.  There were consequently important and moving state events in Westminster Hall, including the address by the King to both Houses of Parliament and the lying-in-state of the Queen.  I may write in more detail about these shortly.  In the meantime, given the difficult times we face, I thought it may be appropriate to offer some light relief with a caption competition.  

Om Saturday, the Centre for British Politics at the University of Hull tweeted a photograph of me and Dr Matt Beech at the University Open Day.  I hasten to add that I am sitting, whereas Dr Beech is standing.  A graduate suggested the picture may be appropriate for a caption competition.  Given that he is a regular at submitting entries for the competitions, he may have a vested interest in making the suggestion.


As usual, the winner will be the reader who submits what in my judgment is the wittiest caption and one that is appropriate to the context.  The prize will be one of my publications.  

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The history of the 1922 Committee

The formation of the Conservative 1922 Committee, effectively the parliamentary Conservative Party,IMG_0134 has been the subject of various myths.  It was not formed as a result of the meeting of Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club in 1922 that voted in effect to end the coalition with the Lloyd George Liberals.  It was not formed in 1922.  It came into being in April 1923, established by some MPs newly elected in the 1922 general election, as a form of self-help group.  There was no induction for new Members; they were left to their own devices to find their way around and make sense of the practices and procedures.  So on the initiative of Gervais Rentoul, the newly-returned Member for Lowestoft, a small group gathered to inform themselves. As Rentoul recalled, ‘After consulting a few colleagues who were chafing, as I was, against the feeling of ineffectiveness and bewilderment, an invitation was issued to all the newcomers to meet in one of the committee rooms and discuss what could be done about it.’  So the Conservative Private Members (1922) Committee – popularly known as the 1922 Committee – was born.

I wrote the 90th anniversary history, published in 2013, and am now at work on the centenary history, to be published next year by Manchester University Press.  There is a lot to cover in terms of what happened over the past century as well as the consequences ‘the 1922’ has had for British politics.  It has reached where it is today as a result of three critical developments.  It was not necessarily destined to survive in the early years.

In the meantime, if you are interested in hearing more about the history of the 1922, Radio 4 are airing a programme devoted to the subject, hosted by the historian Sir David Cannadine, next Monday (29 August) at 8.00 p.m.  More details here.

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Winner of the caption competition…

Certain readers may have been getting rather frustrated waiting for the announcement of the result of theIMG-48c02949ed18000298474216bcfd32ef-V latest caption competition.  Other events have recently occupied my time and I was also grappling with choosing a winner.  There were some inventive entries.  I toyed between two (suffice to say one being from a regular contributor) and have decided to award the prize to Rob Falconer with:

‘Of course, had Boris Johnson signed the Northern Runnymede Island Protocol, he would have ripped it up a month later’.

It was a close run contest.  Commiserations to Mark Shananah who offered a caption via Twitter which referred to alcohol.  I pointed out I was teetotal.  He put in his entry drawing instead on a reference to pizza.  He appears fated.  I cannot stand pizza!

If Mark Falconer would like to get in touch, his prize will be on its way.

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What type of Prime Minister do you want?

As explained in an earlier post, some years ago I published an article, ‘Prime Ministerial Power: A Framework for Analysis’, which analysed number10-door4-474-150x150 prime ministerial leadership in terms of purpose, skill and circumstance.  The study, which has variously been drawn on by other academics, built on US studies of personality to identify why politicians seek to be Prime Minister (purpose) and their ability to provide leadership (skills).  A premier can have clear policy goals, but may lack the ability necessary to lead and motivate others in delivering them.  As I argued, the individual in the office will largely determine the skills that are available.  Circumstance will determine which are needed.

In addressing purpose, I offered a fourfold typology:  innovators (power seekers who pursue clear future goals that they have set), reformers (power seekers pursuing goals set by others, typically the party), egoists (power seeking for the sake of having power and concerned with the here and now of politics) and balancers (concerned primarily with the here and now of politics and maintaining some degree of social stability; some seek power to achieve that, others are conscripts, typically compromise candidates for the leadership).  The categories are not mutually exclusive: some Prime Ministers are essentially hybrid types or their purpose in seeking power may change (as with Churchill).  In terms of skills, Prime Ministers need to know when to command, persuade, manipulate or hide.  The second of these can be especially important at times of stress, a Prime Minister needing to do the rounds of the dining and tea rooms, in effect utilising informal space to rally support.  As I argued in an earlier post, some party leaders have effectively lost office as a result of neglecting such space.

Putting purpose and skill together, one can identify why some Prime Ministers have been notable failures.  Sir Anthony Eden, for example, was an egoist who had poor leadership skills, regularly temporising and interfering in the work of his ministers.  He was already in difficulty before the Suez crisis erupted.

One can thus have Prime Ministers drawn from the same party, but with very different purposes and indeed skills.  Margaret Thatcher was a clear example of an innovator.  Boris Johnson is a prime example of an egoist.  In a post in 2019, I drew attention to the extent to which the two of them are polar opposites.

In the current competition to be the next leader of the Conservative Party, it will be important not simply to look at personality but, fundamentally, at purpose and skills.  Does a candidate have clear goals and the ability to deliver them?   Assuming my typology has some utility, what type of Prime Minister do you want?

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Speaking in the House – promoting the Union

On Thursday the House of Lords debated a motion taking note of the stresses on the Union of the index United Kingdom.  I spoke in the debate and took the opportunity to emphasise four points.  First was the need for the Government’s responses to pressure for change to be considered and evidence-based.  A lot has flowed from the failure of party leaders to understand the motivations of those voting against independence in the 2014 referendum.  Second – a point I have argued in the House before – was the need to be proactive and make the case for the benefits of the Union and not simply being on the back-foot in responding to demands for change.   Third was the need for comity in the relationship between Whitehall and the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, moving away from the ‘grace and favour’ approach taken by the UK Government.  And fourth was the need to have a Cabinet minister responsible for the Union.  The Dunlop report recommended a Secretary of State for Intergovernmental and Constitutional Affairs.  I have variously drawn attention to the problems deriving from not having a Cabinet minister responsible for the Constitution, a point I touched upon in winding-up my debate the preceding Thursday on the need for both Houses to remain co-located in the same city.

The speech was a relatively short one – there was a seven-minute time limit – and can be read here.

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