Andrew Grice: The real reason why Brown might back constitutional change

Inside Politics
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The Independent Online

The first meeting of the new cabinet committee drawing up plans to "clean up politics" after the MPs' expenses scandal took place in the windowless Cobra bunker where ministers gather in a national emergency such as a terrorist attack or swine flu.

Officially, it was the only room big enough for Gordon Brown's much-trumpeted National Council for Democratic Renewal. The joke among ministers was: "This must be an emergency!"

Indeed, the expenses affair has cast a shadow over politics and prompted short-term measures to reform Parliament, such as ending self-regulation by MPs. Potentially more significant are long-term proposals for constitutional reform, which include scrapping the first-past-the-post system, a mainly elected House of Lords and a written constitution.

Such plans are being hastily retrieved from dusty Whitehall shelves. To be fair, Mr Brown has long supported sweeping reform. His statement to the Commons on Wednesday was similar to the first he made as Prime Minister, almost two years ago. A pity, then, that so little progress has been made. It makes his latest foray look a bit desperate – not least because of his sudden interest in electoral reform just when a general election defeat looks inevitable.

The truth is Mr Brown did not put his full authority behind the 2007 proposals to drive them through a Cabinet that was at best lukewarm, and at worst hostile. His ally Michael Wills, the Justice minister, toiled away and kept a flickering flame alive, but senior ministers obstructed him. Mr Brown lost interest. The recession then extinguished the issue. So the big question now – after surviving the botched coup – is whether Mr Brown has authority to force the changes through this time. His resilience under fire cannot be over-estimated. But the man dubbed Terminator has clunked his way out of the coup wreckage weaker, not stronger.

Will he really summon the energy for a cabinet battle over constitutional reform? He will have the support of reformers including David Miliband, Harriet Harman, Jack Straw, John Denham, Peter Hain, Douglas Alexander and Ed Miliband. But the Cabinet's most influential members – Lord Mandelson and Ed Balls – are sceptical. They suspect there are few votes in reforms and, with signs the worst of the recession may be over, can't wait to get back to "the economy, stupid" – which they think will decide the election.

So Mr Brown has a dilemma. His two senior lieutenants will tell him constitutional change is not worth the candle. Yet his gut instinct will be with the radicals. They will argue there is a prize for the party that can change the culture which spawned the expenses affair.

David Cameron proved quick on his feet on expenses and clever at conjuring up headlines suggesting he is a reformer. But Mr Brown could easily outflank him. The Tories oppose electoral reform. Their policy of a mainly elected second chamber would not be introduced in a first term – if ever.

Although no Labour figure will admit it in public, there is another reason Mr Brown should grasp the nettle. The Liberal Democrats won't admit it either, but there are some private nods and winks about what might happen in a hung parliament. If Labour has fought the election on a manifesto including voting and Lords reform, it would be harder for Nick Clegg to put down the phone when the Labour leader called. Of course, it would also be hard to prop up a government perceived to have lost an election.

I am not talking about the Lib-Lab coalition Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown dreamed of before Labour's 1997 landslide. The Liberal Democrats got their fingers burned then and would be cautious next time. But they might support a minority Labour government in key Commons votes in return for a programme of constitutional reform.

There are no real differences between Labour and the Liberal Democrats on this agenda. On electoral reform, the circle could be squared by an immediate switch to the alternative vote (AV) – under which people rank candidates by preference and the bottom one drops out until one wins – with a review into adding some extra MPs on a proportional basis (AV plus) later. But to woo the Liberal Democrats then, Labour needs to be serious about reform now.

I know it sounds fanciful when the Tories seem on course for outright victory. But if the economy recovers quickly, the see-saw Brown premiership might yet tip again. The Liberal Democrats are chasing Labour voters and insist Mr Clegg's goal of overtaking Labour is no fantasy, after the local and European elections. But in a hung parliament, would they really pass up their best chance of constitutional reform? I doubt it.