Lib Dem rebels threaten David Cameron-Nick Clegg unity rift

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Indy Politics

A show of Coalition unity by David Cameron and Nick Clegg was undermined yesterday by growing tensions between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over the Government's reform programme.

Liberal Democrat peers admitted they defeated a flagship Tory plan for the public to elect police commissioners, partly to take revenge for the No campaign's personal attacks on Mr Clegg during the referendum on the voting system.

And there were signs that the Tories may not throw their full weight behind Mr Clegg's ambitious programme of constitutional reforms, including a mainly elected House of Lords; allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP has engaged in serious wrongdoing and calling 200 all-postal "primary" elections in safe seats which have not changed hands for many years. Senior Liberal Democrats fear the Tories are getting "cold feet", which could further undermine Mr Clegg's authority.

At their first joint appearance since the Liberal Democrats' drubbing in last week's elections and AV referendum, Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron issued a "business as usual" message as they unveiled proposals to tackle youth unemployment. They insisted the reasons for forging the Coalition a year ago were just as valid today.

But Tory ministers were furious that 13 Liberal Democrat peers blocked plans for elected police commissioners, pointing out that the proposal was included in the Coalition Agreement signed by both parties. One rebel admitted: "This was also about all the crap that David Cameron and George Osborne allowed to be thrown at Nick Clegg in the referendum. We can give it back. We are not going to be intimidated."

Lord Bradshaw, who led the revolt, said he felt so strongly about the proposals that he did not care if he lost his position as the Liberal Democrats' transport spokesman for rebelling. "There comes a point... when you actually have to take a stand. I'm not here as a servant of any particular person, I'm here to use my experience and my judgement and in this case I have done so."

The Liberal Democrat peers would probably accept a compromise under which police chiefs would be elected in a small number of areas through a pilot scheme. Mr Clegg has hinted at his support. But Tory ministers claim the Liberal Democrat rebels have "overplayed their hand" by ripping the heart out of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill and want the Commons to overturn the Lords' decision.

Mr Clegg said the Commons would seek to reinstate the original proposal. "I take very seriously indeed even policies which don't flow from one side of the Coalition; our collective duty is to honour what we've said we're going to do in the Coalition Agreement."