It's a common complaint among Conservative MPs that the Liberal Democrats wield 50 per cent of the influence in government when they have only 16 per cent of its MPs. And it's true that the Liberal Democrats have punched above their weight in the Coalition. But what's not been noticed is how clumsily the smaller party has used its disproportionate power.
Nick Clegg and his allies have made three big mistakes so far in this Parliament. They supported the huge rise in tuition fees, when the Coalition agreement gave them the option to abstain. They failed to stop the NHS Bill in its tracks when they had the chance last summer. And they are now embarking on House of Lords reform, at a time when it couldn't seem less relevant to most people's lives.
The tuition-fee error marked the beginning of the slump in the Liberal Democrats' popularity, and it was entirely self-inflicted. Vince Cable could honourably have stood aside and delegated the policy to his Tory universities minister, David Willetts. Liberal Democrat MPs could have abstained in the Commons. That might not have brought them instant popularity, but it would at least have neutralised the hatred they inspired by ratting not only on a manifesto commitment but a signed pledge. The Tories were delighted. It meant they could get the legislation through easily. And the resulting opprobrium was then dumped on Clegg not Cameron.
Then, when the Liberal Democrats lost the referendum on the alternative vote, they missed another opportunity. It is one of the oddities of coalition that parties are strongest when they are at their weakest. If one party is in deep trouble with its own supporters, the other feels a duty to help in order to protect the coalition. So, when the AV referendum was lost, the Conservatives knew they had to offer the Liberal Democrats a big concession elsewhere.
That concession was the pause in the NHS Bill, supposedly a chance to consult, listen and rewrite the most contentious clauses to bring health professionals and the public on side. It failed, as it was always bound to do – if anything opposition has hardened – and the Liberal Democrats can now claim no credit. Had they instead demanded that the Bill be dropped, they could have gone into the next election claiming that they had tamed the Tories' nastier tendencies and saved the NHS. Meanwhile, the Conservatives might have been rather relieved to have had an excuse to drop this deeply unpopular reform.
After these two unforced errors comes a third, which could be Clegg's final undoing. The Deputy Prime Minister is about to embark on a mission that will cause poisonous parliamentary rows, alienate voters and give his Coalition partners a huge tactical advantage at the next election.
"It's one of the most unpopular causes of all time," says a Tory minister about Lords reform. A Cabinet minister professes himself baffled that Clegg is prepared to expend so much time, energy and political capital on it. Another claims to be delighted that the Liberal Democrats will be indulging in displacement activity for the next couple of years. "It means they can't disrupt things elsewhere. From our point of view, it keeps the children occupied while we can get on with something else. They'll talk about House of Lords reform, and we'll talk about things that matter to voters, like the economy and welfare."
Nonetheless, the Lords reform Bill will clog up both Houses of Parliament for most of the next session and possibly beyond. The upper house is bound to vote it down. According to a Times poll last year, 80 per cent of peers oppose a mainly or wholly elected upper chamber, and that includes nearly half of Liberal Democrats and 90 per cent of Tories. At least 20 Liberal Democrat peers are likely to rebel against Clegg's plans.
The more interesting question is whether it can even get through the Commons. Last time such a vote was taken, in 1998, the new Labour government was united and the Bill had just six clauses. It was still impossible to reach a consensus. This time, there is no unity in either government or opposition, and the Bill will have 50 to 60 clauses. There is much more scope for division and mischief-making.
Already Conservative backbenchers are grumbling, and not just the obvious ones. Some of the more thoughtful and usually loyal members of the 2010 intake are expressing disquiet. They worry that an elected second chamber would demand equal powers to the Commons. And they don't want the Coalition to be accused by voters of being out of touch, for concentrating on an issue that couldn't matter less to people who are struggling not to go under at the end of each month.
The more partisan Tory MPs believe that the Liberal Democrats – having failed to entrench themselves as the party holding the balance of power in the Commons when they lost the AV referendum – are now trying to entrench themselves in the Lords instead by bringing in elections with proportional representation. And then there are the personal factors. As one Cabinet minister puts it: "If you're an MP faced with an elected senator in your constituency purring about in his Jaguar with a higher salary than you, going to all the hospital openings, but not doing the social security casework, you're not going to like it much."
Whether the Bill passes the Commons will depend on Labour's attitude. Although the Bill will be pretty similar to Jack Straw's proposals in the last Parliament, the temptation will be to vote against, or at least to demand a referendum on it, as promised in Labour's 2010 manifesto.
In a way, a defeat in the Commons, though embarrassing for Cameron, may be better than the alternative: that the Commons passes the Bill, the Lords vote it down and the Liberal Democrats demand that the government use the Parliament Act to push it through regardless. That would incur opposition from Tory backbenchers, would probably be defeated in the Commons and would then threaten the Coalition.
So why is Clegg so determined to throw everything at a policy that will win him few votes, lose him many more, and may not even materialise? He clearly needs to win back favour with his activists. And he sees it as a matter of principle: he would apparently prefer to go down fighting against what one of his allies calls "the forces of darkness" than not to fight at all. It was a Tory MP, Mark Reckless, who challenged Cameron on Lords reform at a parliamentary party meeting last Friday. But it's Nick Reckless who is now staking all on a reform that hardly anyone – in Parliament or in the country – wants.