Steve Richards: What's in it for us? The question Nick Clegg must ask himself

For Labour this a blissful moment with both Coalition leaders in severe discomfort

Share

Two of the three party leaders face some big decisions after the latest and most dramatic episode of the long-running Lords reform saga. What they decide to do may well shape the broader political landscape for several years to come.

Oddly, the one party leader who does not face agonising decisions is David Cameron. For him, the course is set. He might be Prime Minister, but Lords reform has illustrated most vividly the limits of the control he wields over his parliamentary party. Tory MPs not only rebelled against him, but did so with a resolute pride. One of many telling moments in the past few days took place on Tuesday when the Leader of the Commons, Sir George Young, blamed Labour for the failure to make progress. The increasingly famous Conservative MP Jesse Norman intervened defiantly to make it clear that it was his side that had been the block and he wanted their defiance recognised. This is hardly apologetic dissent.

Due to the Lib Dems' excessive generosity in the first year of the Coalition, Cameron was sheltered from the fact that he did not win the last election outright. More frequently in the past few months, and emphatically this week, he is reminded of his inevitable, unavoidable fragility. Cameron is in a weak position, as is any Prime Minister in a hung Parliament.

He is weaker still because he leads a parliamentary party with strong convictions. I disagree with the Conservative rebels, but I admire their principled stand. They believe profoundly that the reforms are dangerous and not properly thought through. The current Conservative parliamentary party, not least the ambitious 2010 intake, put their convictions first, even though a ministerial reshuffle is likely soon. This is admirable but makes them difficult to lead in the best of circumstances. For Cameron, this is not the best of circumstances. Unless there are significant changes to the proposed reforms, the Tory rebels will not change their minds between now and September. Cameron knows this and will almost certainly tell Nick Clegg he can only deliver far more modest reforms.

Which leaves Clegg with some big decisions to make. Does he accept that only a much smaller step towards a largely elected second chamber is possible? He has an alternative route. Several rebels have indicated a willingness to move towards his more ambitious proposals if specific concessions are made. There were persistent calls for a referendum and this is one of the demands of the Labour leadership. Will Clegg seek to press on with concessions, including perhaps a referendum?

With good cause Cameron is wary of granting one, not least because it would open the door for demands that he brings forward legislation on a European referendum binding the next parliament to hold one. In spite of this nightmarish prospect, he has previously shown a reluctant willingness to hold one on Lords' reform. Clegg is firmly opposed, partly because he knows that voters tend to support the status quo, but also on the more principled grounds that the referendum on Scottish independence is more than enough for this parliament. Nonetheless, he might have to offer one as the only way to keep his more radical reforms alive.

At the moment, he is inclined to hold out. The past few days have been more painful for him than electoral reform was because at least then the Conservatives kept their side of the bargain, which was to offer a referendum. If Clegg has to accept a miserly incremental change to the Lords, he must decide where this leaves his party as part of a Coalition that has failed to deliver electoral reform or radical Lords reform.

The threats to vote against the boundary changes, specifically made by the deputy leader, Simon Hughes, yesterday have annoyed the Conservative leadership, but are deadly serious. Clegg has almost no choice. He cannot credibly lead his MPs into the lobbies to help Cameron pick up extra parliamentary seats, partly at the Lib Dems' expense, without a shield of significant Lords reform. Clegg is angry at Labour's duplicitous manoeuvering, but he is nearly always angry with Labour. What is new is the degree to which he feels let down by some Conservative MPs and by Cameron for not making more effort to deliver them. When introducing his proposals on Monday, Tory rebels treated Clegg with raucous disdain. Afterwards, he noted to an ally that Lib Dem MPs had politely supported policies over which they were deeply uneasy and remained civil to Cameron in the Commons. When he outlined a proposal that was part of the Coalition agreement, all hell was let loose.

For Labour, on one level this is a blissful moment with both Coalition leaders in severe discomfort. But Ed Miliband broadly supports the cause that is causing such internal strife. Can he continue in the autumn to advocate Lords reform while killing off this particular proposal? I sense he has already decided to be unyielding in his opposition to any new timetabling proposal. But changes to the substance might be different, not least if a referendum is offered.

The Machiavellian twist, of course, is that Miliband's team wants to see the proposed boundary changes defeated, depriving the Conservatives of additional seats at the next election. Were it possible, he would like to be seen assisting the cause of reform while maximising parliamentary opposition to the boundary changes – what Tony Blair would call a third way. But if that is not available, he might still have some tricky decisions to make on how much he helps Clegg and the degree of pressure he puts on his party to do so.

No one knows what will happen next. On this, the two leaders are not fully in control of their parties. All I can predict with total confidence is that MPs who are stroppy in July do not become less so after the recess. This was always John Major's hope in the mid 1990s. "They will be calmer when they have all had a holiday," his ministerial allies used to say over summer drinks. They never were. They will not be this autumn, one of several reasons why Cameron hopes Clegg will accept a modest reform that Tory rebels can support. But I doubt very much this long-running saga will end as neatly as that.

s.richards@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/steverichards14

React Now

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

Lead Teacher of Thinking School Drive Team and Year 3 Form teacher

Competitive: Notting Hill Prep School: Spring Term 2015 Innovative, ambitious ...

Operations Data Analyst - London - up to £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Operations Data Analyst -...

Programmatic Business Development Manager

£35 - £40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: As the Programmatic Business Develo...

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is currently recruitin...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: out of time, polling and immigration and old words

John Rentoul
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past