Mary Ann Sieghart: Could Lords reform be Clegg's nemesis?

 

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The Independent Online

It's a common complaint among Conservative MPs that the Liberal Democrats wield 50 per cent of the influence in government when they have only 16 per cent of MPs. And it's true that the Liberal Democrats have punched above their weight in the Coalition. But what has not been noticed is how clumsily the smaller party has used its disproportionate power.

Nick Clegg and his allies have made three big mistakes so far in this Parliament. They supported the huge rise in tuition fees, when the Coalition Agreement gave them the option to abstain. They failed to stop the NHS Bill in its tracks when they had the chance last summer. And they are now embarking on House of Lords reform, at a time when it couldn't seem less relevant to most people.

The tuition-fee error marked the beginning of the slump in the Liberal Democrats' popularity. Vince Cable could honourably have stood aside and delegated the policy to his Tory universities minister, David Willetts. Liberal Democrat MPs could have abstained in the Commons. That would at least have neutralised the hatred they inspired by ratting not only on a manifesto commitment but a signed pledge. The Tories were delighted. It meant they could get the legislation through easily. And the resulting opprobrium was then dumped on Clegg.

Then, when the Liberal Democrats lost the referendum on the Alternative Vote, they missed another opportunity. It is one of the oddities of coalition that parties are strongest when they are at their weakest. If one party is in deep trouble with its own supporters, the other feels a duty to help. So, when the AV referendum was lost, the Conservatives knew they had to offer the Liberal Democrats a big concession elsewhere.

That concession was the pause in the NHS Bill, supposedly a chance to consult, listen and rewrite the most contentious clauses to bring health professionals and the public on side. It failed, and the Liberal Democrats can now claim no credit. Had they instead demanded that the Bill be dropped, they could have gone into the next election claiming they had saved the NHS. Meanwhile, the Conservatives might have been rather relieved to have had an excuse to drop this deeply unpopular reform.

After these two errors comes a third, which could be Clegg's final undoing. The Deputy Prime Minister is about to embark on a mission that will cause poisonous parliamentary rows, alienate voters and give his coalition partners a huge advantage at the next election.

"It's one of the most unpopular causes of all time," says a Tory minister about Lords reform. A cabinet minister professes himself baffled that Clegg is prepared to expend so much time, energy and political capital on it. Another claims to be delighted the Liberal Democrats will be indulging in displacement activity for the next couple of years. "It means they can't disrupt things elsewhere."

Nonetheless, the Lords reform Bill will clog up both Houses of Parliament for most of the next session and possibly beyond. The upper House is bound to vote it down. According to a Times poll last year, 80 per cent of peers oppose a mainly or wholly elected upper chamber, and that includes nearly half of Liberal Democrats and 90 per cent of Tories.

The more interesting question is whether it can even get through the Commons. Last time such a vote was taken, in 1998, the new Labour government was united and the Bill had just six clauses. It was still impossible to reach a consensus. This time, there is no unity in either government or opposition, and the Bill will have 50 to 60 clauses.

Already Conservative backbenchers are grumbling, and not just the obvious ones. Some of the usually loyal members of the 2010 intake are expressing disquiet. They worry that an elected second chamber would demand equal powers to the Commons. And they don't want the Coalition to be accused of being out of touch, for concentrating on an issue that couldn't matter less to people.

The more partisan Tory MPs believe that the Liberal Democrats – having lost the AV referendum – are now trying to entrench themselves in the Lords instead by bringing in elections with proportional representation. And then there are the personal factors. As one cabinet minister puts it: "If you're an MP faced with an elected senator in your constituency with a higher salary than you, going to all the hospital openings, but not doing the social security casework, you're not going to like it much."

So why is Clegg so determined to throw everything at a policy that will win him few votes and may not even materialise? He clearly needs to win back favour with his activists. And he sees it as a matter of principle: he would prefer to go down fighting against what one of his allies calls "the forces of darkness" than not to fight at all.

It was a Tory MP, Mark Reckless, who challenged Cameron on Lords reform at a party meeting last Friday. But it's Nick Reckless who is now staking all on a reform that hardly anyone wants.

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