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Tuesday 18th January 2011 | 11:27
It's been filibuster heaven in the Lords as Labour peers attempt to hold up the progress of the AV bill.
For while the Government are undoubtedly well-organised -see James Landale's excellent scoop on Parliament's newest publication - the Opposition are clearly relishing their first serious battle since the election.
In what reads like a Who's Who of the Blair and Brown administrations, we've seen overnight a long line of Labour types using all of their Commons experience to stymie the bill.
The cast list includes, Lords Kinnock, Prescott, Grocott (TB's ex PPS), Howarth, Liddle, Snape, McAvoy (Deputy Chief Whip for both Blair and Brown). That's not to mention Baronesses Armstrong, Liddell, Nye, Smith (Brown's ex PPS, pictured above). Heck, we've even had Lord Peston (Pesto's dad) chipping in.
The Lords isn't quite used to all of these low-rent Commons tactics and there is a sense of unease among crossbenchers about what's going on.
In the small hours, the tactics certainly recalled filibusters of yore. We had a diversionary discussions* about prime numbers, the last cannibal to live in the UK (Lady Ford on Sawney Bean) and about Rangers supporters living in Corby. I'm not making this up.
Baroness Armstrong told us why she wasn't cut out for Facebook or Twitter. Lord Foulkes took us on a lengthy ramble around his former constituency.
The all-nighter even brought together some unlikely allies. Baroness Nye (Brownite through and through) said this of Baroness McDonagh (Blairite through and through):
"I have worked with my noble friend over many years. On matters of organisation I always follow her lead because she has great expertise in this area. It has not always been the case on, perhaps, politics or personalities over that period, but this is not the place."
The man who tried to knock Blair and Brown's heads together, Lord Prescott, led the charge this morning, claiming that the combined AV-seats bill lacked a "democratic mandate" because it wasn't in the manifesto of either Governing party. He asked the most pointed question of all: "Who's gonna blink?"
Well, the main problem for the Government is that there is no tradition for guillotine or programme motions in the Lords. There was even a murmur of disquiet when Lord Trefgarne was so exasperated that he moved that "the question now be put" before midnight.
The Speaker allowed him to do so because "extreme circumstances" permit such a move. But even if the Government moved a vote on every one of the 100 amendments put down by Labour, that would still take an awfully long time. The bill has to be passed by Feb 16 to have a hope of a May 5 referendum
Tory sources in the Lords say that Labour's tactics are really testing the House's procedures.
Lord Strathclyde was so bogged down today that Baroness Warsi had to update the Cabinet meeting about the progress or lack of it of the bill. Meanwhile, Number 10 told us that the Cabinet was "absolutely clear and united that we will not be splitting the bill".
As in years gone by, this may all turn out to be a Grand Old Duke of York act by the Labour peers. Then again, this is a new breed of peers, much more used to the Commons and its wiles. This could be just the start of the peer show.
The Government has so far failed to point out the irony of unelected peers blocking the public from having a vote on their electoral system.
The constitutional position of the Salisbury convention (which means peers ought not to block legislation that was in a party manifesto) is also very unclear.
I suspect we will get a much tougher and clearer line from the Government as the day goes on. Cannibals or no cannibals.
*FOOTNOTE: Here's some of those exchanges.
Lord Harris of Haringey: So what were the reasons for choosing 600 as opposed to 650, 630, 575 or 585?. I was tempted to say that there was some sort of arcane numerology about this. Noble Lords will be aware that 650 is the product of three prime numbers: two, five squaredand 13; 630 is of course the product of four prime numbers: two, three squared, five and seven. I defy anyone to find a similar formulation or number that involves five prime numbers."
Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke: Perhaps I could postulate another figure, given the nature of the debate. Could we maybe go for 666?
Lord McAvoy: On Corby, I agree with and understand my noble friend's point about Scotland. Is she aware that there is even a Rangers FC supporters' club in Corby?
Baroness Billingham: I most certainly am aware of that. On a Friday night, if you asked anyone in Corby, "What are you doing at the weekend?", they would say, "We are going home". I would say, "But you have lived here for the past 50 years". Coaches were lined up in the high street for the supporters-some to watch Celtic and some to watch Rangers. Traditions died hard in Corby."
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