The conventional wisdom about the consequences of the failure of Lords reform is that the Liberal Democrats will wreak their revenge for the Conservatives’ ‘breach of contract’ by scuppering the boundary changes. Over the past few months, the party has taken great pains to link the two reforms, and now that it is clear that the first will not go through, all focus is on the second.
There is much that still needs to become clear about how this will work; the biggest question of all being how Lib Dem ministers can vote against the changes without being sacked. But don’t expect the whole party to troop through the ‘no’ lobby on this issue.
I was surprised yesterday by a conversation I had with a senior Liberal Democrat MP, who told me that the party should allow the boundary review to go through the Commons to safeguard the coalition. The MP said:
‘I we get into the position of saying that ‘we will vote for X only if you vote for Y, or we will not vote for X only because you did not vote or Y, then the days of the coalition would be numbered. Remember that the purpose of the coalition was to restore economic stability.’
He pointed out that it would be all very well to dispense with the boundary changes were the UK seeing growth of two or three per cent, but last week’s 0.7 per cent drop in GDP shows that there is still much work to do on this. The coalition’s purpose has not yet been fulfilled.
‘I suspect that the electorate would be pretty unforgiving if they find themselves in the midst of a general election caused by the inability of the coalition parties to keep their promises in the coalition agreement when the principle purpose of that agreement is stability of the economy has not been achieved. The purpose of this coalition is economic stability: we have not achieved that. If the coalition were not founded in these circumstances it would be different.’
So this would mean the Liberal Democrats essentially taking the failure of Lords reform on the chin for the good of the economy. In the eyes of voters, it would be a noble sacrifice, but it would also make party management a nightmare for David Cameron, as his MPs would now believe that the Conservatives could break other promises in the Coalition agreement without any real consequences from their partners, save a bit of hand-wringing from the likes of Simon Hughes and Tim Farron in various media outlets in the run-up to a vote. Even if the majority of the Lib Dem party decides to give the Tories a bit of a hard time in the lobbies, there won’t be unity in their revenge.