Clegg’s ball of Lords reform bitterness
Day one of the new parliamentary term, and already the Commons is full of barely concealed bitterness and acrimony. Welcome back, everyone!
The subject of politicians' bile is Lords reform, the great centrepiece of this year's Queen's Speech and Nick Clegg's great constitutional shakeup. The deputy prime minister had already conceded defeat in the middle of the long summer recess. Now it was time for him to confirm that decision before parliament, withdrawing the Lords reform bill.
The atmosphere was one of intense hostility from each party towards every other. Astonishing, really, that a piece of legislation which secured a 300-plus majority before the summer is now the subject of such intense divisions. Clegg hated the Labour party for not supporting the timetable motion which, as he acknowledged today, effectively stymied the bill. The Tories hated Clegg for refusing to press on with boundary changes, which they view as completely unconnected. Labour just hates everyone else for being in power, when they're not.
It is the coalition parties' attitudes which are most significant for the politics of the next six months or so. Lords reform has exerted a terrible toll on relations between the Tories and Lib Dems. Conservative backbenchers muttered, full of hostility, as Clegg explained the Lib Dem position. Bernard Jenkin called Clegg's position a "disgrace". Peter Bone wondered when the Liberals were going to call it a day and head over to the opposition benches. Anne Main said Clegg had thrown his toys out of the pram.
They actually have a point. Boundary changes were introduced as a quid pro quo for the electoral reform referendum, and so were never supposed to be linked to an elected second chamber. With the alternative vote defeated, Clegg viewed the redrawing of the constituency map – which worked out much worse for his party than had been expected – as the only effective riposte. He said the Tories' "arbitrary pick-and-choose process when one party balks at something" was completely unacceptable.
Clegg may have gone a bit far here. One party had not "honoured the commitment of the coalition government", he said. But the coalition agreement did not guarantee a directly elected second chamber: it merely "committed to establishing a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation".
All this has led to a feeling of real anger emanating from the Conservative backbenches. Clegg appeared completely isolated – with the exception of his own MPs and ministers, who had shown up in droves to offer their support. Even Vince Cable was present, to hear Clegg joke that he hoped one of his allies – Matthew Oakeshott – might think about resigning from the upper House.
It wasn't all bad news, though. Dennis Skinner said the failure of Lord reform offered a "silver lining": when Clegg is kicked out as Lib Dem leader at least he now has the option of becoming a peer. "No I don't think I'd be welcome," Clegg said, the atmosphere briefly lightening as a rare smile crossed his face.
There remain some loose ends which need tying up. As several Labour MPs pointed out, the boundary commissioners are statutorily obliged to go ahead with their changes. They will publish the revised version this October. All a complete waste of time, as the result is a "foregone conclusion"; a lot of public money is being wasted on this. Right now the government couldn't care less; it will simply fail to get the changes through when they are put to parliament. Will Cameron actually force the Lib Dems into the 'no' lobby? Might Clegg actually feel it would help his 'policy differentiation' drive to achieve this? Or would it risk making the coalition look somewhat farcical?