Will Theresa May's grammar school proposals get through parliament?
Ever since Theresa May announced her policy of more grammar schools, I have been trying to work out the reasoning. Surely if it is not defeated in the Commons, it will lose in the Lords?
Whatever her personal beliefs why would the Prime Minister pursue a policy sure to end in defeat?
At first I assumed the proposals would be defeated in the Commons. With a working majority of just 16 (after taking account of Sinn Fein MPs and the Speaker and Deputy Speakers not voting), surely there are enough Tory MPs prepared to abstain or vote against to prevent any pro-selection legislation being passed.
Add in Douglas Carswell and it becomes 18. However we must take account of the Northern Irish (of whom the Unionists would vote for grammar schools) and Scottish MPs, with the SNP having a policy of not voting on legislation that only affects England. The SNP has been flexible around that policy. On Question Time this Thursday the SNP Home Affairs spokesperson, Joanna Cherry, stated that their vote would depend on the wording of the legislation.
However they may not get the chance to choose. Under Cameron's "English votes for English laws" rules, it is now up to the speaker to decide which MPs can vote on which legislation. (Here is the BBC describing how this was done on the Housing Bill). As grammar schools would only affect English schools, it seems likely the speaker would stop Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs from voting. Taking out the other 14 Northern Irish MPs takes the working majority to 32, removing the 59 Scottish MPs (one of whom is Conservative) takes it to 89 and removing the 40 Welsh MPs (of whom 11 are Conservative), brings a working majority to 107. It would take a lot of Conservative abstentions or votes against to overturn that.
But there is no government majority in the Lords and the press has been suggesting that any bill will be blocked there. Under the Salisbury convention (which dates from the Attlee government) the Lords will not oppose a government policy at its 2nd reading, if it was included in the manifesto on which the government was elected. Grammar schools, of course, were not in the Conservative manifesto.
I have even heard a suggestion that Theresa May expects that the proposals will be defeated in the Lords. The plan, it is argued, is to respond to a Lords defeat by engineering an early election, and going to the electorate on the joint basis of the democratic right to govern and grammar schools. Although opinion polls suggest the majority are opposed to creating more grammar schools, the suggestion is that it is a policy that will win over elements of the pro-Brexit and UKIP electorate, and is also more popular with the older electors who are more likely to vote.
Its a great conspiracy theory but perhaps a bit unlikely. I'm not sure those who expect a defeat in the Lords have actually talked to any peers. I think people are over-estimating how prepared the Lords are to oppose primary government legislation. They are very aware that they lack the elected authority of the Commons and are more likely to pass amendments to the Bill than to oppose it outright.
Those amendments are unlikely to be wrecking amendments. What is needed are amendments that are entirely reasonable but make the actual creation of new grammar schools more unlikely, such as requiring a local referendum before one is created.
So its time to put our thinking hats on. What should those amendments be?