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Nicholas Leonard: Cameron plays a double game on reforming House of Lords

The House of Lords may soon be radically transformed into a kind of Seanad Eireann-on-Thames. A committee of MPs is expected to recommend today that the number of peers in the Lords be cut from 800 to 300, that their title be changed to senator, and that 240 of them should be elected with the remaining 60 being directly appointed. The number of bishop members would be more than halved to 12.

"Completely illegitimate" is how the Liberal Democrat peer, Matthew Oakeshott, described the Lords yesterday. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg did a deal on Lords reform as part of his coalition agreement with the Conservatives two years ago.

But while prime minister David Cameron has paid lip service to the commitment, he privately thinks the whole thing is a waste of time, money and energy.

Mr Cameron is also alarmed at the suggestion that any reform of the Lords should be endorsed by a referendum. He sees this as a dangerous precedent. That is why cynics say that he is perfectly happy to see headlines about Tory MPs, including some parliamentary aides to ministers, threatening to rebel if the Lords proposals are included in the queen's speech as a commitment for the next parliamentary session.

The Lib Dems think they can blackmail the Conservatives over Lords reform by threatening to block changes to the constituency boundaries. This, together with a reduction in the number of MPs, is regarded as crucial by the Conservatives to have a genuine chance of getting an outright majority at the next general election.

Such a prospect seems very dim at the moment. The intense unpopularity of the party will be underlined next month when it suffers severe losses in the local council elections.

The most alarming thing for Mr Cameron is that the Conservatives are now regarded not only as pursuing wrong-headed policies on key issues such as the economy, but are also gaining a reputation for being simply incompetent.

The most embarrassing example of this is the home secretary Theresa May, who has become a national laughing stock over her bungled handling of the extradition of Abu Qatada to Jordan.

The unfortunate Ms May got herself in a muddle over dates and deadlines set by the European Court of Human Rights.

The farcical sequence of events has convinced many Conservative MPs that the European Court is a legal burden that British democracy cannot live with and that the sooner all sovereign power is repatriated so that the Supreme Court has the final say on such matters, the better. Unfortunately for them, their justice minister, the liberal-minded Ken Clarke, does not agree with them.

Right-wing Conservative MPs are also furious with the chancellor George Osborne for putting another £10bn (€12.2bn) into the IMF which they see as another way of propping up the 'doomed' eurozone project.

Mr Osborne is getting a lot of the blame for the unpopularity of the Conservatives at the moment but on the IMF funding he is unrepentant. He says, rightly, that the problems of Greece, Portugal and Ireland have a 'direct impact' on the UK.

One of the biggest worries of Mr Osborne's fellow MPs is that he and Mr Cameron have been 'captured' by Sir Humphreys of the civil service and are having their true Conservative inclinations subverted by the insidious machinations of Whitehall in 'Yes, Minister' fashion.

Mr Cameron himself seems to be a bit uncertain about whether or not he has been brainwashed. He denied it at Westminster a couple of weeks ago but then told the media while on a trip to Malaysia that 'Yes, Minister' was 'true to life'.

Irish Independent