Cracks in coalition as open warfare is declared
A RIFT has opened at the heart of the coalition government after the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg took revenge on his Tory colleagues for their failure to support his party’s plans to reform the House of Lords.
• Lib Dems will block Tory plans to redraw parliamentary boundaries
• Coalition tensions over reform of House of Lords
The Liberal Democrat leader accused the Conservatives of having broken the “contract” between the two parties and announced he would now be ordering his MPs to block Tory proposals to redraw the parliamentary boundaries.
The move puts the coalition under unprecedented strain and stokes the anger between the two parties.
The dispute had erupted just before the recess, when a large back-bench Tory rebellion had in effect scuppered Lib Dem hopes of bringing elections to the House of Lords.
At a Westminster news conference yesterday, Mr Clegg confirmed he was dropping his House of Lords Reform Bill, after being informed by David Cameron that an “insufficient number” of Conservative MPs was prepared to back the legislation. He said he was acting “reluctantly” after the Prime Minister made clear he was unable to reverse the revolt by 91 Tory back-benchers last month, which forced the government to abandon the crucial timetable motion limiting Commons debate on the Lords reform bill.
“The Conservative Party is not honouring the commitment to Lords reform and, as a result, part of our contract has now been broken,” he said.
“Clearly, I cannot permit a situation where Conservative rebels can pick and choose the parts of the contract they like, while Liberal Democrat MPs are bound to the entire agreement.
“Coalition works on mutual respect; it is a reciprocal arrangement, a two-way street. So I have told the Prime Minister that when, in due course, parliament votes on boundary changes for the 2015 election, I will be instructing my party to oppose them.”
The move is a blow for the Tory party. It had been predicted to gain up to 20 seats as a result of the boundary changes, which could be the difference between an overall Tory majority and another hung parliament.
The Lib Dems, meanwhile, were keen to get Lords reform through as part of their legacy from the coalition, having failed to win the alternative vote (AV)referendum in 2011.
Labour said the announcement was a “humiliation” for the government, which had left the coalition’s ambitious programme of constitutional reforms “in tatters”.
The Deputy Prime Minister also attacked Labour for threatening to combine with the Tory rebels to defeat the motion to set a time limit on debate on the Lords, even though the party said it supported the principle of a mainly democratically elected second chamber.
“Regrettably, Labour is allowing short-term political opportunism to thwart long-term democratic change,” he said.
But despite his obvious disappointment, Mr Clegg insisted the Lib Dems would carry on in their coalition partnership with the Conservatives.
“The thing I care about most – the central purpose of the Liberal Democrats in this government – is to build a fairer society,” he said. “We will continue with that critical work. We will continue to anchor this government firmly in the centre ground.”
A senior Lib Dem source said that an arrangement had been reached with Mr Cameron on the coalition agreement to allow Lib Dem ministers to stay in post despite voting against government policy on boundary changes.
But several Tory MPs insisted Lib Dem ministers should resign if they carry out the threat, and accused Mr Clegg of being “delusional”, saying he was guilty of “betrayal” because the coalition agreement does not specifically mention legislation to reform the Lords, while boundary changes were linked to having the referendum on voting reform which took place last year.
One Tory MP told The Scotsman: “[Tory Bournemouth West] Connor Burns was forced to resign as a parliamentary private secretary when he voted against Lords reform, so it should apply to the Lib Dems as well.”
Penny Mordaunt, the MP for Portsmouth North, said that while Lords reform had not been linked to other elements of the coalition agreement, boundary reform had been very clearly linked to the AV referendum.
She said: “To try and reinvent the coalition agreement to fit a narrative that he is trying to create is not grown-up. I appeal to the Liberals to raise their game and be more adult about how they are conducting themselves.”
The editor of the website Conservative Home, Tim Montgomerie, a leading coalition critic, tweeted: “Tory Cabinet minister: Everyone knows we gave LDs AV referendum for boundaries. At the earliest opportunity we must revenge Clegg’s betrayal.”
Tory culture secretary Jeremy Hunt yesterday described Mr Clegg’s decision as “disappointing”, but said it would not affect the two parties’ commitment to work together.
“The really important thing about this coalition is that we came together to sort out the economic mess that we inherited from Labour,” he said. “There isn’t a cigarette paper between us on that.
“That is what we are focused on getting the gold medal for.”
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said the Lib Dems were paying the price for Mr Cameron’s inability to lead his own MPs.
“Today’s humiliation for the government is a spectacular failure of leadership from David Cameron,” he said. “This government’s approach to constitutional reform is in tatters. They have inflicted huge damage
because of their behind-the-scenes horse-trading.
“The task of modernising our constitution is too important to be treated in such a shabby way.”
But privately some Tory MPs were celebrating what they considered to be a double win, with Lords reform gone along with boundary changes which would have seen their seats abolished.
This included Nadine Dorries, the right-wing critic of David Cameron, who described the Prime Minister and Chancellor as “posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”.
The intervention could not have come at a worse time for Mr Cameron, who also found out yesterday he has to deal with a by-election in the marginal seat of Corby with the resignation of Louise Mensch as an MP.
Divisions between the Tories and the Lib Dems also opened up on economic policy, with Chief Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander contradicting Chancellor George Osborne by stating that the UK’s triple-A credit rating “is not the be-all and end-all of economic policy”.
The conflicts between the two parties look set to get worse in the near future, with battles over Tory plans to replace GCSEs in England with O-levels, Lib Dem legislation on gay marriage and divisions over the European Union.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 21 May 2013
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 3 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: West