As I said yesterday, the Tories have suddenly turned on the House of Lords. Everyone from Boris to the Chancellor have now come out with the line that the Upper Chamber should not stand in the way of the now to be stressed “elected chamber’s” wishes. But what the last week has really done, more than anything else, is to remind us all of just how razor thin the Tory majority actually is.
I talk often myself about an age of Tory hegemony we are just seeing the early stages of, all of it resting on the assumption that a Corbyn led Labour Party will be crushed regardless of where the Conservatives are and what they’ve done come the next general election. Yet this week’s problems for Osborne in terms of getting the tax credits cuts through has more to do with his problems in the Commons than in the Lords, when you look at the pragmatic realities around it. Yes, the Lib Dem and Labour peers ganging up to try and strangle the cuts were the impetus for the defeat, but the real reason the government is facing having to do a large U-turn on this is because they feel they’ve lost their Commons majority on the issue. This can easily happen when your majority rests on a handful of seats. If Blair had been facing this sort of situation in 1998, he could have sweated it out, no problem: when you have a majority of 150+, you can afford to lose a lot of votes and still win in the end. Cameron and Osborne in 2015 don’t have the same luxury. Even a few abstentions can really hurt their chances of getting something – anything – through.
I will close on an upside for the Tories: despite this being a potentially big win for an opposition Labour Party, they haven’t come out of it with any feeling of a great victory. To their credit, they haven’t tried to claim one either but nonetheless, for this week’s tax credits setback to have a lasting affect on the Conservative Party’s political fortunes, the resulting credit would have had to have gone to Labour. Although they haven’t loused it up so badly as to come away with zero credit, most of the positive feeling has accrued to that supposed den of undemocratic inequity (except when they do something you happen to like), the House of Lords. The Labour part in it all looks rather incidental for good reason: because it has been. John McDonnell saying publicly that if Osborne backed down on the whole thing, in other words did the sort of massive U-turn on policy that oppositions usually live for, Labour wouldn’t make political hay out of it, tells its own story. You can say it’s the “new politics” at work; however, in reality it feels like Labour knows they should have come out of this week with more credit for having made it all happen than they have. Corbyn’s (finally!) decent performance at PMQs, at last understanding that the whole point of the excercise is to try and get the prime minister against the ropes and then dialectically batter him, has made up for this a little. But only a little.