Mary Ann Sieghart: Lords reform is a fight that Nick Clegg will never win

Why is Nick Clegg so determined to throw everything at a policy that will win few votes – and lose many more

Share

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.

m.sieghart@independent.co.uk / www.twitter.com/MASieghart

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Shia LaBeouf is one of Brad Pitt's favourite actors in the world ever, apparently  

Shia LaBeouf to Luis Suárez: Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Ellen E Jones
Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay's Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled” in March  

My best and worst stories of 2014

Simmy Richman
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015