Nick Clegg moved the Government into uncharted political waters today by vowing to vote against agreed Coalition policy in revenge for David Cameron’s failure to deliver on House of Lords reform.
Mr Clegg confirmed that he and all other Liberal Democrat ministers would vote down legislation to cut the number of MPs in the House of Commons to 600 – a move that makes it significantly less likely that the Tories will be able to win an outright majority at next election.
Normally if a minister defied the Government whip they would be forced to resign. But faced with the prospect of collapsing the Government Downing Street last night appeared to accept mass Lib Dem rebellion on boundary changes to avoid the prospect of early elections.
Privately some senior Liberal Democrats are not unhappy at the outcome – even if it means loosing Lords reform. The party stood to lose up to 14 of their 57 MPs as a result of the boundary changes and feared that a protracted and acrimonious row over House of Lords reform at time of economic crisis would play badly with voters.
“Only some of our more intellectually isolated supporters really cared that much about Lords reform,” said one. “Personally I’m cracking open a small bottle of champagne.”
Conservative backbenchers – whose rebellion over Lords reform led to yesterday’s announcement and would proportionally lose far fewer seats as a consequence of boundary changes - were less sanguine.
“Apart from keeping ministers in office, what is the Coalition now for?” asked the Tory MP Douglas Carswell.
“What we need is a new Coalition agreement which is not done in a rush by a clique and that can be democratically agreed by our party conferences.”
Another Tory MP added: “This will go down like a lead balloon. Nick Clegg is on the record supporting boundary changes and now he’s suddenly changed his mind because he hasn’t got House of Lords Reform. He’s basically throwing his toys out of the pram.”
In a press conference formally announcing the end of legislation to create an elected second chamber Mr Clegg said that he had been prepared to put the changes to a referendum.
But this offer was blocked by Mr Cameron because the deal would also have delayed boundary changes from coming into force until 2020.
Mr Clegg said as a consequence the Lib Dems had no choice but to oppose boundary changes – laying the blame firmly at the door of Conservative backbenchers who defied to whip to oppose Lords reform.
“The Conservative party is not honouring the commitment to Lords reform and, as a result, part of our contract has now been broken,” he said.
“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. So I have told the Prime Minister that when, in due course, parliament votes on boundary changes for the 2015 election I will be instructing my party to oppose them.”
But Mr Clegg insisted that the move did not put the Coalition under threat as both parties were committed to the wider programme of Government.
“The loadstar in a Coalition is mutual respect, reciprocity and an ability to work professionally with each other whatever the bumps and scrapes over the passage of time.
“I am confident that there are really big important things for us to get on – all of which drives us together.
“At the top of this Government there is a degree of grown up trust and respect which binds us together.”
He added that they would look to fill the legislative gap left by the failure of House of Lords reform with new legislation on banking, the economy and social care.
“Any legislation that can create growth, generate jobs, particularly for young people out of work is a real priority for me,” he said.
“I personally have also felt we should go further and faster to deliver a properly funded system of social care for the elderly. That’s maybe something we can give an extra push to.
I think there will be no shortage of ideas.”
Mr Clegg added that he believed that House of Lords reform would eventually happen – but said, until it did, he unlike other senior politicians would not take up a seat.
“It is totally out of date, indefensible but will change. It simply cannot carry on – it has just not happened this time.”