Deputy Prime Minister’s questions is quite often a slightly grumpy affair, with Nick Clegg huffing and puffing at irritating questions from Peter Bone about what position he would take in the government if David Cameron were run over by a bus. This morning’s session wasn’t much different: it was even more bad-tempered as backbenchers were keen to pick at scabs on the failure of Lords reform.
The Deputy Prime Minister continually defended the Liberal Democrats’ decision to block the boundary reforms, criticising Labour for failing to support the programme motion for the House of Lords Reform Bill. It was like watching a couple who had broken up continue to bicker about whose fault it was. Bone attacked Clegg for linking the changes to constituencies with the failure of House of Lords reform, saying:
‘The Conservative members of the Coalition delivered AV – the House of Lords reform Bill delivered the opportunity for AV. The biggest majority in this parliament, the biggest majority was for House of Lords reform. How can the Deputy Prime Minister vote against the boundary review and expect to remain in government?’
Clegg was tickled by this:
‘I am delighted that – if fleetingly – the honourable member was in favour of AV… We are honouring the coalition agreement by putting the boundary review legislation on the statute books… but we are not, for the reasons I have already explained, going to vote for the changes.’
Then he came out with a joke:
‘I have also read in the papers reports that the chair of the Conservative party wishes to strike a deal with us on the boundaries in return for a party funding deal. I suppose, Mr Speaker, finally that’s a get rich quick scheme that he’s proud to put his name to!’
MPs roared ‘more! more!’ Clegg looked pleased with himself, and gave them a bit more:
‘Put it this way: a change of mind on my part on this issue is as likely as the honourable member for Wellingborough (Peter Bone) going to Norway to accept the Nobel Price on behalf of the European Union. It’s not going to happen.’
Though Conservative MPs privately believe that there is a much better chance of the boundary changes still going through than that, some feel the odds have lengthened. But they still believe that as the vote is a year away, there is still a chance, even though the party itself is starting to select on the basis of old boundaries. Clegg is right to reject a deal for state funding: as I argued yesterday, this would look grubby. But something else might come up over the next few months that the Tories think he’ll find attractive instead. Even if they do, it is very difficult to imagine him going back on such tough talk about opposing the changes.