The Government has been defeated in the House of Lords as peers defied MPs to insist that a referendum on changing the voting system for Westminster elections should only be binding if turnout is higher than 40%.
The defeat – inflicted with a vastly increased majority – sets up a further showdown with the Commons as ministers attempt to get the controversial Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill on to the statute book before peers begin their February half-term recess.
MPs on Tuesday overturned a series of amendments to the legislation passed in the Lords and both Houses were ready to sit late in an effort to end the stalemate.
A protracted session of parliamentary “ping pong” could now take place, with the Bill being passed between the two Houses until a final agreement is reached.
Peers voted by 277 to 215, majority 62, in favour of former Labour minister Lord Rooker’s move which would mean that the Alternative Vote (AV) system for Westminster elections would not be automatically adopted if turnout falls below 40%.
The move was backed in the Lords by just one vote when it was first debated last week, but the higher majority followed speeches in favour of Lord Rooker from Tories including former chancellors Lord Lawson of Blaby and Lord Lamont of Lerwick and former cabinet minister Lord Forsyth of Drumlean.
The Commons on Tuesday night overturned the Lords’ amendment demanding a 40% threshold for voter turnout by 317 votes to 247, Government majority 70.
But Lord Forsyth told peers that among Tory MPs there had been 20 rebels and 25 abstentions.
He told peers: “Many of the people who went through lobbies did so out of loyalty and they did so because they were being whipped. And they are ringing us up and saying: ‘For goodness sake save us in the House of Lords’. It’s a pretty pass when the democratically elected chamber has to rely on this chamber.”
But Advocate General for Scotland Lord Wallace of Tankerness, speaking for the Government, said that having a threshold “seems to dilute the democratic will of the people”.