NICK Clegg has given David Cameron the summer to “sort out” Tory rebels on the House of Lords or face a breakdown in the coalition.
The ultimatum came after Conservative MPs rebelled and stalled reform of the Lords, a key Liberal Democrat aim.
The move sparked anger and Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes made it clear that in retaliation his party would block the boundary changes and reduction in seats in the Commons which the Prime Minister sees as essential to help deliver a Tory majority at the next election.
The dissatisfaction within the Lib Dems over their coalition partners was underlined by a senior Lib Dem who told The Scotsman: “There is little point in continuing with a coalition where one of the parties does not allow the other to get something it wants out of it. Cameron has got the summer to sort it out and then we will see.”
Late on Wednesday evening, further division appeared to emerge when Mr Cameron told a meeting of the influential Tory back-bench 1922 Committee that he would make “one more attempt” at Lords
reform “before drawing a line under it”.
However, he said that this time the reforms would include a smaller proportion of elected members in the Lords,
instead of the 80 per cent agreed with the Lib Dems.
It is understood the offer was made without previously speaking to Deputy Prime Minister Mr Clegg, highlighting the problem Mr Cameron faces in appeasing his own back-benchers whilst also pleasing his Lib Dem partners.
The threat to the coalition government was also laid bare in the Commons, with one Tory MP calling for a
re-evaluation of the coalition agreement.
On Tuesday night, following the decision not to try and force a timetable on the Lords debate which faced almost certain defeat at the hands of Tory rebels, the Tory leader of the House, Sir George Young, promised to bring back a new timetable in the autumn after the summer recess which begins next week.
And the Lib Dem leadership has told Mr Cameron he needs to turn the vote around when MPs return.
In private, senior Lib Dem members of the government were repeating the threat.
They also said that any Tory proposals such as Michael Gove’s latest education reforms which do not appear in the coalition agreement will be blocked.
The senior Lib Dem source told The Scotsman: “There are many things we can do which will make life very difficult for the Tories.
“They need to realise that they did not win the last election and they need us to have a mandate to government.
“They have a sense of inheritance of power which is completely false.”
The row has been brewing over several months with leading right-wingers on the Tory back-benches, such as Wellingborough MP Peter Bone, publicly complaining about Lib Dem influence particularly on issues like Europe and defence.
But Lib Dems have also complained that while they have backed Tory measures, such as welfare reform and austerity, and taken a political hit on trebling tuition fees instead of abolishing them, they have had very few gains in return.
During Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on Wednesday Mr Cameron was lampooned over Lords reform by Labour leader Ed Miliband who suggested he had lost control of his party.
Mr Miliband told the PM that he “didn’t just lose the confidence of his party last night, he is losing the confidence of the country”.
Describing the coalition as being “in disarray”, the Labour leader accused Mr Cameron of losing his temper with leading rebel Jesse Norman, leading to “fisticuffs in the lobby”.
Mr Cameron replied that it was “utterly pathetic” for Mr Miliband to tell his MPs to vote in favour of reform, but against the timetable needed to bring it about.
But the difficulty faced by Mr Cameron in turning around the rebellion became apparent in PMQs. Tory MP Adam Afriyie told Mr Cameron: “Given that new issues are emerging as we enter the third year of coalition, do you agree with me that now would be a good time for the political parties to review the coalition agreement for the future?”
Mr Cameron appeared to brush off the suggestion. He said: “I absolutely agree that in a coalition you need to keep working out the next set of things that you want to achieve.
“This coalition has achieved cuts to corporation tax, taking people out of income tax, a massive expansion in terms of trust schools, a huge contribution to our health service that is now performing better that at any time in the last decade.
“I am committed to making sure that we now look at all the next steps to make our country a better place to live.”
Speaking to the 1922 Committee on Wednesday night, Mr Cameron said there would be no deal with Labour because they “cannot be trusted”.
“There is not going to be endless haggling with the Lib Dems either. We are going to have one more try to see if we can secure a way forward and achieve a smaller elected element,” the Prime Minister said.
“If we fail to do that then we need to draw a line. We are not going to go on and on with this and damage the rest of the government’s programme.”
Mr Cameron played down the suggestions that he had clashed with Norman, the MP for Hereford in the voting lobbies on Tuesday night, when it was reported that he had strode over and start jabbing his finger at the back-bench MP.
A source close to Mr Cameron said the Prime Minister was “rightly annoyed” with the Hereford MP because Mr Norman had been sending texts and e-mails misrepresenting his position by suggesting that rebels would be indulged by Downing Street.
Their conversation was not “some huge argument” but was “fairly good-natured”, said the source, who said Mr Norman later sent out a clarification of his earlier messages, adding: “I think he got the point.”
Mr Cameron was not behind a separate incident, when Tory whips ordered Mr Norman off the parliamentary estate, the source insisted. “That was not an order from on high. It was a question of high emotions in the Commons after a long day.”