Nick Clegg's hopes of resurrecting his constitutional reform agenda in the wake of yesterday's disastrous AV defeat will be scuppered by his Conservative coalition partners.
Senior Tory figures have told The Independent that David Cameron will not support Mr Clegg to force through Liberal Democrat plans to create an elected House of Lords – despite a commitment to reform in the Coalition agreement.
They said Mr Cameron had "no intention" of allowing Lords reform to become "his Hunting Act" and he will not throw his party's weight behind it. He is also not prepared to "clog up" the rest of the Government's legislative agenda by protracted debate on Lords reform.
His hardline position is difficult for Mr Clegg as further constitutional reform was a key part of the Coalition agreement. Liberal Democrats took solace from the pledge to reform the Lords as it became obvious they were losing the AV referendum. Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes said yesterday: "Lords reform is a done deal – that was part of the coalition agreement."
But the Tories say the Coalition agreement only commits them to "establish a committee" on reforming the House of Lords and not to pass legislation on it. Mr Clegg is due to unveil a draft House of Lords Reform Bill in the next few weeks. Mr Cameron will offer warm words to the principle of Lords reform and promise his support for "reaching a consensus on reform" of the second chamber. But behind the scenes Conservative strategists are not prepared to spend political capital on House of Lords reform.
"We're hoping that Clegg's draft bill is so good that it doesn't need to become an act," said one.
With the proposals almost certain to be opposed by many Labour, Conservative and independent peers the measure would require the Government to push it through using the Parliament Act. Tory sources say there are "no circumstances" in which Mr Cameron would use the act – which allows Governments to overrule a vote in the House of Lords.
Privately, Mr Clegg's advisers acknowledge that House of Lords reform is of "fundamental importance" to the party but significantly admitted it might be impossible to achieve. "Liberals have been trying to reform the House of Lords since the beginning of the last century and it has huge symbolic importance to our party," said one source. "But there are very difficult issues still to resolve and it may simply not be possible."
Both sides in the Coalition expect the next few months to be among the most difficult the Government has faced so far. Rows are brewing over directly elected police chiefs – which Liberal Democrats in the Lords are likely to oppose – as well as the NHS and some aspects of the localism bill which will reform planning laws.
Clegg's plans for Lords reform are thought to include a proposal for a second chamber of 300 members, which is 80 per cent elected and 20 per cent appointed. Elected members would serve a single term of 15 years.
After the plans are announced, a committee of both Houses will be set up before the summer recess to consider the plans and will report next year. A bill would then have to be passed by both houses.
Frances D'Souza, leader of the independent cross-benchers in the House of Lords said she thought the chances of reform were slim. "There is a prevailing view that if the Liberal Democrats don't get AV then Cameron will be inclined to hand to them something else which they want desperately, which is a fully elected House of Lords.
"We all know that a draft bill is coming down the line, but I think that Cameron is a great deal tougher than people think and if he does not want a reform bill to go through because it will clog up his legislative programme then he will make sure that it doesn't.
"The Tories many not want to deal with House of Lords reform for the next two years, which is probably what it would take.
"The issue will be powers. Can you have an elected house with no powers, or do you have to give it a veto over the Commons – and if you give it that veto what will MPs say about that? To use the Parliament Act on a constitutional matter of Parliamentary reform would be very bad form."