Nick Clegg under pressure to abandon support for smaller Commons after Tories scupper democratic House of Lords
Nick Clegg is expected to announce next week he has been forced to abandon Lords reform in the face of implacable Conservative backbench opposition that David Cameron has been unable to overcome.
It is a bitter second blow to Clegg, who has already been forced to swallow abandoning electoral reform for the Commons, leaving the government’s democratic reform agenda looking relatively threadbare.
Discussions are under way over how to fill the resulting void in the government’s legislative programme, with measures to encourage economic growth and job creation being promoted by senior Tories. Promises to make progress on party funding reform are also being offered.
Clegg has to decide whether to respond to the Lords rebuff by insisting legislation designed to cut the number of MPs to 600 should be abandoned. The change is being promoted by Cameron as a way of cutting the cost of politics and equalising the electoral size of constituencies.
Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrat peer and former party chief executive, denied the reverse on Lords reform would threaten the coalition’s existence, but said the case for reducing boundaries had been weakened. Writing on the Guardian website, he suggests: “If the Lords is not to be given more legitimacy, then the case for reducing the number of MPs (and increasing the proportion of the payroll vote in the Commons) will also be weakened.”
But Tory MPs Ann Coffey and Greg Hands took to Twitter to point out that Clegg had repeatedly backed equalisation of the size of constituency electorates in parliament. Coffey described Rennard’s argument as “guff”.
It was pointed out by Tories that Clegg told MPs during the bill’s passage “there can be no justification for maintaining the current inequality between constituencies and voters across the country”.
Cameron has been determined to see the boundary review implemented by 2015 since it is likely to benefit the Tories most, partly because demographic change has seen a fall in electorates in Labour-held inner city seats. The Liberal Democrats are likely to lose most seats proportionately – as many as 15, a large chunk of its already threatened 57-strong grouping.
The boundary commissions are currently redrawing the boundaries, but MPs and peers are not due to vote on specific proposals until autumn 2013.
There is speculation as to whether Clegg could announce next week that the boundary review programme is being dropped. But this will require shelving an expensive and continuing process.
Lords reform and boundary reviews were not explicitly linked in the coalition programme, but some Conservative cabinet members recognise that Clegg will have to exact public revenge over the rebuff if he is to keep his party committed to the coalition.
Clegg insisted last month that the coalition would continue even if his dream of a largely elected second chamber had to be shelved.
It was being stressed by Lib Dems that they had stuck to their guns in negotiations with Cameron and refused to accept a diluted alternative such as reducing the number of hereditary peers.
Lib Dem sources underscored the importance of Cameron’s failure to deliver, saying it would be the first time the two parties had totally failed to implement a central commitment of the coalition agreement.
David Laws, the former Treasury chief secretary, has already said there would be a chain reaction if Lords reform was not delivered by Cameron.
Party sources said discussions were also under way on how to fill the void in the legislative programme, as well as how to unwind the plans to redraw constituency boundaries.
Conservative sources told the Guardian the focus had shifted to legislation that could fill the slot set aside for an elected second chamber. A huge amount of parliamentary time – as many as 14 days on the floor of the Commons – has been allocated for the legislation in both houses of parliament.
One source said the replacement would be “jobs, jobs, jobs”, adding there had been a series of meetings on the issue in Downing Street on Thursday. Many Tory MPs had criticised the Lords legislation on the basis that it would seem an irrelevance at a time of national austerity.
Lib Dems are likely to blame Labour for part of the failure, pointing out that Ed Miliband would not commit his party to a programme motion for the committee stages of the bill – a means of limiting the amount of time the bill would have spent being discussed on the floor of the Commons.
Labour voted for a second reading on Lords reform, but Miliband judged he would not have been able to take his parliamentary party with him if he committed to the programme motion.
The shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan,, refused to take responsibilty for the impasse, saying: “We warned Nick Clegg that the real roadblock to reforming the Lords was the Tory party – something we learned the hard way from our 13 years in government. Given today’s reports, it’s a pity Clegg simply dismissed our warnings and instead chose to lecture Labour. Only now is it dawning on Clegg that it is his coalition partner that is tooth-and-nail opposed to reforming and modernising our second chamber.
“Clegg marched his MPs through the voting lobbies in support of the harsh and unfair policies of this Tory-led government in anticipation of receiving Lords reform in return. But now Clegg may end up with nothing, ruthlessly exposing his naivety. Millions of people struggling through the tough economic times will question his political priorities.”