Analysis: Should Tories escalate dispute and risk playing into Labour’s hands?
NICK Clegg’s announcement that the Lib Dems accept his plans for Lords reform are dead, but that they will now also oppose the coalition’s plans for Commons boundary reform, is very smart politically. The big question is what this means.
Lib Dem unease about the way the coalition has come to work goes back to its beginning, but turned to disillusion with the referendum on the Alternative Vote.
Lib Dems thought this was inadequate anyway – while it was all the Conservatives would accept, for Lib Dems it fell far short of a vote on “proper” proportional representation. However, the Lib Dems thought they had a deal that the Conservative Party would take a hands-off approach to the referendum: Tory ministers would not campaign, and the party would not help fund-raising efforts for the No campaign.
When the No campaign garnered such prominent and active Conservative support, and culminated in such a devastating defeat, many Lib Dems concluded that they had “been had”. Subsequent events – notably the December 2011 EU summit walk-out – have only reinforced this view in the Lib Dems’ minds, and they concluded that the Conservatives were simply out to wreck their prospects at every turn.
In this context, the “big bang” plans for Lords reform that Clegg unveiled in May 2011 were to be the Lib Dems’ consolation prize for all the harm the coalition had done them. The symbolic importance of Lords reform far exceeded its practical value.
The structure of the coalition – with Lib Dem ministers scattered across all departments, rather than dominating in two or three – has made this worse. It will be hard for the Lib Dems to point to specific policy achievements as belonging distinctively to them.
By tying the demise of the Lords reform to the future of boundary reform, on which the Tories have set their hearts, Clegg has firmly batted the ball back into Cameron’s court.
The question now for the Conservatives is whether they wish to seek to retaliate and escalate the dispute further.
There are quite a number of steps before a fresh election is on the cards, including an unravelling of the coalition to create a looser but less stable “supply and confidence” arrangement. But if the Conservatives escalate, they are dealing with a party that has little to lose electorally.
They could find themselves in an early general election, with the polls looking good for Labour and no Conservative boost from the revision of constituency boundaries.
• Alan Trench, honorary senior research fellow, The Constitution Unit, University College London.
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