Nick Clegg was accused of "blackmail" and "rewriting history" yesterday as furious Conservative MPs hit back at the Liberal Democrats' attempt to keep alive their plans for an elected House of Lords.
Close allies of David Cameron warned that Liberal Democrat threats to take revenge if a crucial Commons vote is lost could backfire and merely fuel a backbench Tory revolt against Mr Clegg's flagship reform.
Tensions inside the Coalition rose to new heights yesterday after Richard Reeves, Mr Clegg's outgoing director of strategy, told The Independent there would be "consequences" for the Government's other political and parliamentary reforms if the House of Lords Bill was blocked. Liberal Democrat sources confirmed the most likely consequence would be for them to derail changes to parliamentary boundaries which could hand the Tories up to 20 seats at the next general election.
On Tuesday, the Commons will vote on a timetable motion to limit the debate on the Bill. About 100 Tories are threatening to join forces with Labour to defeat the motion, which would boost the rebels' prospects of talking out the measure by making marathon speeches. Only about 50 would need to vote against the timetable motion to kill it. Senior figures in both Coalition parties admit the vote is on a knife edge.
Despite the Tory anger at the Liberal Democrats' negotiating tactics, Mr Cameron and George Osborne will try to persuade Tory MPs to fall into line in the next few days. "We are not going through the motions; we are serious about getting Lords reform through," said one senior Tory.
However, Cameron aides disputed Liberal Democrat claims there was a trade-off between the Lords shake-up and the boundaries' review. They insisted "the deal" on constitutional change was that the Liberal Democrats would approve the new boundaries if the Tories allowed a referendum on switching to the alternative vote (AV) system for Westminster elections, which was lost last year.
The mood on the Tory backbenches was black as MPs reacted furiously to Mr Reeves's parting shot before he headed off to live in America for family reasons. Peter Bone, MP for Wellingborough, accused the Liberal Democrats of acting in an "untrustworthy and unprincipled" way.
"To try to blackmail like this is the lowest," he said. "It has backfired on them because it is so blatantly obvious what they are doing. They are rather like the little boy who doesn't get his way and takes his bat and ball home."
Conor Burns, who could lose his job as parliamentary aide to the Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Paterson, if he joins the rebellion, called on Mr Clegg to disown the threat from his aide. "To now be threatened explicitly by someone who is on his way out of the country has not gone down well," he said. "Clegg should disown these comments, and if he does not we can only come to the conclusion that it represents his personal view." Andrew Griffiths, another Tory MP, said: "When they have to resort to threats, bullying and blackmail in order to get Lords reform, it's clear they have lost the argument." Mark Pritchard, former secretary of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, warned it would be "the ultimate treachery" if the Liberal Democrats scuppered the boundary changes.
Senior Liberal Democrat sources dismissed the Tory criticism, insisting that Lords reform was part of the Coalition Agreement struck in 2010, and caused no controversy at the time because both parties had pledged change in their election manifesto.
"It is not a pick-and-mix constitutional agenda where you can say you don't like that bit of it. Both parties are signed up to all of it," said one Clegg aide. "This is a very significant moment for the Government. We have given blood, sweat and tears for the Coalition and supported things we did not like, such as NHS reform. Now Tory MPs should do the same."
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