The legislation setting up a referendum on changing the Westminster voting system and cutting the number of MPs has completed the penultimate stage of its marathon passage through the House of Lords.
But before the end of the three-day report stage peers inflicted a defeat on the Government – the fourth so far on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.
The Bill will return to the Lords on Monday for third reading and it now appears almost certain the referendum on adopting the alternative vote (AV) system for electing MPs will be able to go ahead on May 5 as planned.
Ministers had warned the date was under threat when the Bill became bogged down during a near-record 17-day committee stage in the Lords amid claims of Labour filibustering.
The legislation must reach the statute book by the time peers rise for their half-term recess on Wednesday next week in order for the plebiscite to be held on May 5. And although the Bill is likely to return to the Lords again on Wednesday after MPs have considered – and probably rejected – some of the Lords amendments there is now only limited opportunity to hold up its progress.
Peers on Wednesday evening voted by 275 to 257, majority 18, to give the Boundary Commission greater flexibility when constructing constituencies.
Under the Government’s plans MPs would be cut from 650 to 600 and under the redrawn boundaries the number of voters in all but two Scottish constituencies would be within 5% of the national average of around 76,000. But peers backed crossbencher Lord Pannick’s amendment which would allow a 7.5% variation when there are “exceptional circumstances”.
It follows a defeat on Monday that would make the AV referendum non-binding if turnout falls below 40% and defeats at committee stage which would allow the referendum to be held at any point before October 31, not just on May 5, and ensure that no constituency is split between the Isle of Wight and the mainland.
The Government has said they will try to overturn the 40% provision in the Commons and have signalled they will accept the October 31 move, as it does not prevent the referendum being held on May 5.
But it is not yet clear whether there will be an attempt to overturn the Isle of Wight amendment – which was championed by Tory ex-Cabinet minister Lord Fowler and saw the biggest Lords rebellion since the Government took power – or Wednesday night’s defeat.