David Cameron’s ill-judged decision to effectively demote Baroness Stowell of Beeston continues to generate fallout. Now the House of Lords Constitution Committee has weighed in on the matter, and its report is likely to cause more headaches for Downing Street.
The committee’s report does a nice job of explaining why it is important for the Leader of the House of Lords to be a full member of the Cabinet. To quote paragraph 21:
The Leader may often have to give unpalatable advice to ministerial colleagues about the chances of their legislation passing the House, or the time it will take. The Leader may have to block proposals which would clearly not pass the House or would be contrary to its interests. The Leader has to express the House’s misgivings to departments about their policies. The Leader has to ensure that questions and correspondence from peers are answered promptly and fully. In such matters the Leader needs authority. While some of that authority can come from tangible things like sitting at the Cabinet table and receiving Cabinet papers, some of it is intangible, such as having full Cabinet status on the same terms as senior ministers in the Commons. Having a member of the House of Lords in the full Cabinet sends an important signal to the rest of Government (ministers and the civil service), and to the House itself, about the status of the House of Lords. If the Leader is no longer a full member of the Cabinet there may be a risk that the views of the House are not fully listened to in the Cabinet.
Happily, it looks like Baroness Stowell’s demotion will be temporary. Paragraph 8 of the report notes that Cameron has assured Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, the Chairman of the Association of Conservative Peers, that “the current situation as a purely temporary one, which I will want to rectify at the earliest opportunity.” The cynic in me sees this as an attempt to backpedal. Cameron’s claim that his hands were tied by the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975 seems a bit disingenuous. It is hardly a new piece of legislation, and its strictures did not stop his predecessors from including the Leader of the Lords in their Cabinets.
As I have said before, this has been a spectacular own goal on Cameron’s part because it plays into the Opposition’s narrative that he has a “women problem.” Despite his last-minute decision to give her a nominal promotion, her status has continued to be the source of adverse comment. With a General Election looming, it seems unwise to give his enemies free ammunition!