Boy, was I annoyed with Nick Clegg yesterday. One thing about being on holiday in this country is that you can’t escape news. Well, I could switch my phone off but it just doesn’t work like that. So, I was not chuffed that he chose the first proper day of my holiday to announce the end of Lords reform. My half pint of pear cider in the Magners Pasture was rudely interrupted by details of his statement. At least there were two other Liberal Democrats we’d met by chance to discuss it with.
Clegg faced a really rotten situation. David Cameron couldn’t persuade his coalition-hating right wing backbenchers to support the Lords reform that they’d all been elected on and had supported going in to the Coalition Agreement. What was he to do? In the event, he is the only leader to emerge from this with integrity and dignity.
There was no way that he could simply let it pass. His decisive action yesterday to scupper a pet project of the Conservatives, the boundary changes, is entirely appropriate. Cameron really wanted those boundary changes to happen, particularly as they would benefit the Conservatives disproportionately. Nick Clegg could not afford to just sit there and take a clear breach of the Coalition Agreement without any consequences. If they’d got away with it once, we’d have risked total impotence within the Coalition and that could not happen.
Now, I know I said the other day that I wasn’t too happy with the idea of using the boundary review to punish the Tories. I do however, understand where Nick is coming from. We have to wrap this up and move on. While I think people would expect there to be consequences – you can’t break an Agreement and expect to get away with it scot free – they don’t want to see protracted public argument that would destabilise the Government. One clear, rational statement, presented in reasonable terms, was the right thing to do.
There is one aspect, though, of voting down the Boundary Review which really annoys me. Nadine Dorries, whose seat would have disappeared if they’d gone ahead, now gets a massive reward for bad behaviour.
It seems very clear to me that neither Cameron nor Miliband had the slightest inclination to ensure Lords Reform, which they both apparently support, actually happened. Nick Clegg was willing to negotiate with them. He offered Cameron the option of changing the legislation to include a referendum before Lords elections took place, but the Prime Minister wasn’t willing to let the people have their say. He asked Ed Miliband how many days of Parliamentary debate he wanted to see and Miliband wouldn’t even give him the courtesy of a reply.
The reality of the situation was that Nick was faced with a weak Prime Minister who couldn’t control his own backbenchers and an unprincipled leader of the Opposition who was not prepared to enter into genuine negotiations. Nick acted decisively, rationally and intelligently.
I’m glad that he had some choice words of criticism for the Conservatives in his statement:
My party has held to that contract even when it meant voting for things that we found difficult.
The Liberal Democrats are proving ourselves to be a mature and competent party of Government…
And I am proud that we have met our obligations.
But the Conservative party is not honouring the commitment to Lords reform…
And, as a result, part of our contract has now been broken.
Clearly I cannot permit a situation where Conservative rebels can pick and choose the parts of the contract they like…
While Liberal Democrat MPs are bound to the entire agreement.
Coalition works on mutual respect; it is a reciprocal arrangement, a two way street.
I have told the Prime Minister that when Parliament votes on boundary changes for the 2015 election Liberal Democrats in Parliament will oppose them.
When part of a contract is broken, it is normal to amend that contract…
In order then to move on.
Lords reform and boundaries are two, separate parliamentary bills…
But they are both part of a package of overall political reform.
Delivering one but not the other would create an imbalance – not just in the Coalition Agreement, but also in our political system.
Lords reform leads to a smaller, more legitimate House of Lords.
Boundary changes lead to a smaller House of Commons, by cutting the number of MPs.
If you cut the number of MPs without enhancing the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Lords…
All you have done is weaken parliament as a whole…
Strengthen the executive…
And its overmighty government that wins.
The Conservatives already know we’re no pushover – we’ve forced Osborne to raise benefits in line with inflation when he didn’t want to, we’ve insisted on more action on the environment and renewable energy than the Tories feel comfortable with. They know that we’re a force to be reckoned with within the Government. That message doesn’t really get across as well as it could to the general public. The challenge for Nick and his team is to ensure that it does, while balancing that with the need for the Government to look professional and competent. I’m encouraged by the way they did that yesterday.