In his statement to the press this afternoon in which he confirmed that the Liberal Democrats were throwing the towel in over reform of the House of Lords, Nick Clegg tried to paint his party as the ‘mature one’. He said the coalition agreement was ‘a contract that keeps the coalition parties working together in the national interest’, and added:
‘My party has held to that contract even when it meant voting for things that we found difficult. The Liberal Democrats are proving themselves to be a mature and competent party of government and I am proud that we have met our obligations.’
Later he pointed out that it was not his party that had caused the Lords reforms, and therefore the boundary reforms too, to fail. The images in Clegg’s statement focused less on the idea of the coalition as a marriage that the media is so fond of and more on cold, hard business deals, and the consequences of breaking contractual agreements. ‘When part of a contract is broken,’ he said, ‘It is normal to amend that contract in order then to move on.’
The Deputy Prime Minister had been discussing whether the Conservatives could muster the numbers necessary for the programme motion on Lords reform to go through for weeks, his aides said. As a compromise, he had offered a referendum on Lords reform that would take place on election day in 2015, and both the reforms to the upper chamber and those to the boundaries being deferred to 2020. Clegg had known for a few days last week before the story made its way into the papers that this would not work. Today he spoke to David Cameron on the phone to confirm the warnings of the past few months: that the Liberal Democrats will be opposing the boundary reforms.
How is this going to work? ‘In a sense, this is a new moment,’ said Mr Clegg. He explained that the Conservatives were keen to push the reforms to a vote, but that the Liberal Democrats wanted to table an amendment which would see the changes to constituencies delayed until after the 2015 election. If that amendment is not accepted, ministers from the Liberal Democrat benches will vote against the reforms, but the line from the party is that they will not be sacked because this is over a breach of contract from the Conservative party. Then the coalition will miraculously move on, seemingly with no hard feelings. They are also trying to push that the coalition is an extraordinary set of circumstances in itself.
It is still difficult to imagine either side of the coalition managing to continue to behave in the ‘mature’ manner that Clegg sketched out this afternoon when it comes to other areas of dissent. David Cameron might struggle to sack a Conservative minister who pushed a non-coalition agenda, while Lib Dem frontbenchers would come under pressure from backbenchers and party members to rebel again on other issues of equal importance.
Clegg is hoping to go to his party conference with some other legislative victory to prove that the Liberal Democrats are still delivering in government. He suggested that this could be going further than the Vickers proposals on banking reform, or on reforming social care or increasing employment opportunities for young people. These would fill the legislative void left by the behemoth Lords Reform Bill. Expect more details on the Liberal Democrat positions on these areas in the weeks running up the autumn conference season.