When David Cameron and Nick Clegg met alone in the Prime Minister's small Downing Street "den" at 11am yesterday after the Cabinet's weekly meeting, the PM had bad news for his deputy.
Conservative whips reported that the backbench rebellion against Mr Clegg's planned reforms of the House of Lords was growing ahead of a critical vote due last night. The usual "threats and promises" of the whips were not working. The rebels had mounted a highly organised operation and, as one Tory aide put it, "they had safety in numbers".
Mr Cameron said there was no option but to delay the crunch vote until the autumn, to give him more time to win round the dissidents. Mr Clegg was reluctant to agree. His instinct was to go down fighting. The two men agreed to maintain regular contact during the day.
Answering MPs' questions at 2.30pm yesterday, Mr Clegg conceded the Lords Bill was "unlikely to progress" without a timetable motion. It appeared that he intended to press on with the scheduled vote. But behind Mr Clegg's back, rumours spread among Tory MPs that the vote would be shelved and the rebels prepared to celebrate. After leaving the Commons chamber, Mr Clegg was in contact with Mr Cameron again. The numbers were still bleak and this time the Liberal Democrat leader accepted the inevitable. The climbdown was announced to MPs by Sir George Young, the Commons Leader, an hour later.
Where does this leave the Coalition? Perhaps in a less battered state than if it had suffered an embarrassing defeat. But the run-up to the vote-that-never-was has left scars. Mr Cameron was irritated by what his allies describe as "amateurish" and "immature" Liberal Democrat negotiating tactics. He was livid that his Coalition partners portrayed the planned vote as a test of his leadership, complained that their very public campaign merely fuelled the Tory rebellion.
Many Tories were angry when Richard Reeves, Mr Clegg's departing director of strategy, told The Independent the "consequences" of a defeat on the timetable motion were likely to include new parliamentary boundaries that would benefit the Tories by up to 20 seats.
Even without an embarrassing defeat, there are still "consequences" for the Coalition from an episode that will leave a bitter taste on both sides. The Coalition will not break up; even the most ardent Liberal Democrat supporters of Lords reform admit it would look mad to walk out over an issue that leaves most voters cold.
But the Coalition has entered a new, more difficult phase. So have relations between Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg. "They are no longer the two grown-ups who sit down and settle the rows between their squabbling kids," one Tory insider said. "The fizz has gone out of their relationship."Reuse content