10 July 2012
Last updated at 04:22 ET
William Hague said MPs were not going to get a better package of reforms to discuss
William Hague has urged Conservative MPs to support the government in a vote later on House of Lords reform, telling them it is a “test” of the coalition.
Up to 100 Tories are expected to defy the government, threatening plans for a mainly elected second chamber of Parliament.
The foreign secretary said the proposals, championed by the Liberal Democrats, were “sensible”.
Labour is set to join the Tory rebels in voting against the government.
Ministers want to reduce the number of members of the House of Lords from 816 to 450 and make 80% of them elected, rather than appointed. Opponents say this will undermine the supremacy of the House of Commons and that constitutional change should not be a priority at a time when the UK is in recession.
Following two days of debate, MPs will vote on the proposals at about 2200 BST.
Up to 100 Tory backbenchers are thought to be prepared to vote against a “programme” motion, limiting the time for future debate on in the House of Commons to 10 days. They say this does not allow enough time to discuss a crucial constitutional change.
Labour, which backs reform of the Lords, says it will also vote against the programme motion for the same reason, meaning the coalition could face its first significant Commons defeat since it was formed in 2010.
If the government’s opponents succeed, the lack of a time limit on debates means the House of Lords Reform Bill could be “talked out” by MPs making long speeches, so that it might never get a chance to pass into law.
This would enrage the Lib Dem leadership and cause further tensions within the government.
Asked on Radio 4’s Today programme whether Lords reform should be a priority during a recession, Mr Hague said: “Even in the Second World War, at the height of some of the greatest crises in the history of this country, legislation was passed affecting some of the issues of the future.”
He added: “The situation here is that we are not going to get a better and more sensible package of reforms than this one.”
Mr Hague attacked Labour’s stance as “opposition for opposition’s sake”, saying: “It’s politics, but it’s a sad reflection on politics.”
He added: “This is something supported by most of the Liberal Democrat Party and by most of the Conservative Party and, in principle, by most of the Labour Party.”
He said 10 days was enough time for MPs to discuss Lords reform, adding: “I’m telling my colleagues to make no mistake about it. They should vote for it.”
The vote was a “test for both” Labour and the coalition and a “test for anybody who’s in favour of constitutional reform”.
A letter opposing the current plans, signed by 70 Conservative MPs, has called for “full and unrestricted scrutiny” of the proposed legislation which will “pile a constitutional crisis on top of the economic crisis”.
During Monday’s debate, former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said the coalition’s proposals would create a “a sham democratic chamber which will consist overwhelmingly of members who would rather be in this chamber”.
Conservative MPs could be forced to resign from any government jobs if they rebel.
In the Commons, Deputy Prime Minister, and Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg rejected criticism of the amount of time set aside to debate the bill, saying there should be no more “foot-dragging” on a project that had already lasted 100 years.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats promised to reform the Lords in their 2010 general election manifestos, while the Conservatives pledged to “work to build a consensus” on reform.
Speaking to the BBC, Labour leader Ed Miliband defended his party’s position amid Lib Dem accusations of opportunism, saying: “I have said we want proper scrutiny of these proposals and will ensure they get into the House of Lords to be debated. I am not saying this bill will die in the House of Commons. I don’t want that to happen.”
The Conservative rebels say their party’s manifesto pledge – and the coalition agreement’s promise to “bring forward proposals” for an elected Lords – have already been fulfilled so they are not breaking any commitments by voting against the bill.