Nick Clegg says that, by failing to support a PR-elected Lords, the Conservative Party has broken the Coalition "contract". To show that deal-breaking has consequences, he is instructing the Lib Dems to vote against the boundary review.
Now I'm not fussed much about the boundary review (mildly opposed, if anything). But let's be clear, here. There was no Coalition agreement to introduce a Bill for a PR-elected Lords, but there was a specific commitment in the Coalition agreement to introduce a bill to reduce the number of MPs and have more equal-sized constituencies. The boundary review is, in the Coalition agreement, specifically tied to the referendum on AV which was duly held. The Conservatives have not broken any commitment in the Coalition agreement by not passing a PR-elected Lords Bill. But the Lib Dems are breaking such a commitment if they do not pass the boundary review. I wouldn't have especially objected to our welching on the deal. But in fact it isn't the Conservatives welching on any deal. It's the Lib Dems. And this is a point that we should not allow to pass. Journalists should have this explained to them so that they understand and report it, and voters see that it is true.
The boundary review point could not be clearer, and is not disputed. The text of the Coalition Agreement states (p27 first paragraph, my emphasis):
"We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies."
Thus, there is a specific Coalition Agreement commitment to bring forward a Bill reducing the number of constituencies and making them more equal in size.
There is no commitment in the Coalition agreement to any sort of Bill on electing the Lords. The Agreement states:
"We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010. It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office. It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers."
Some readers will doubtless suggest that the fact that the word "bill" does not appear here is irrelevant, that the commitment is clear and implicit, and that to claim otherwise is sophistry and word-play. But that really is not so, once one understands the text properly.
In 2003 a motion came before the Commons on Lords reform in an attempt to find a consensus on the issue (as, incidentally, mentioned in the Conservative 2010 Manifesto). Not a Bill, but a motion. And when none of the options in that motion were supported, a "joint committee" was tasked to examine the options and "bring forward their conclusions". Thus the wording of the Coalition Agreement almost precisely mirrors the actions of 2003, none of which implied or led to legislation.
Thus any informed Conservative MP reading the Coalition Agreement and deciding whether to accept it could form the entirely reasonable interpretation that what was envisaged was a variant of the 2003 process (as indeed was the case with the Conservative 2010 Manifesto committment to "seek consensus").
The Coalition Agreement contains a number of provisions establishing committees or commissions to look into questions. For example, in Section 3 the Agreement states: "We will establish a Commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights". No-one thinks that this implies, in any straightforward sense, a commitment to legislate for a British Bill of Rights. In particular, the Lib Dems do not think this, as they continue to oppose doing so. Similarly, on p27 the Agreement states: "We will establish a commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question’." No-one is expecting any legislation on that any time soon.
The Lib Dems do not think they have broken some "Coalition contract" by not supporting legislation on a British Bill of Rights or the West Lothian question, so why should anyone believe some "Coalition contract" is broken if there is no legislation on the Lords?
By contrast, there are many measures that do explicitly promise legislation. For example, in Section 24, adjacent to the Lords committee commitment there are commitments to legislate on fixed terms for Parliament, a power of recall for MPs, an AV referendum and the boundary review. That the Lords reform commitments do not mention legislation but are surrounded by other proposals that do explicitly promise legislation is a further reason Conservative MPs would have had for believing that the Agreement involved no commitment to legislate.
Thus it is not word-play or sophistry to claim that the Agreement involved no commitment, explicit or implicit, to legislation for a PR-elected Lords. Of course it didn't! If it had included any such commitment, Conservative MPs would never have accepted the Coalition at all!
Nick Clegg should not be allowed to assert, unchallenged in the press, that the Conservatives have broken their part of the Coalition bargain on Lords reform, forcing the Lib Dems to back out on the boundary review. That simply isn't true, any more than that the Lib Dems broke the Coalition bargain by refusing to support a British Bill of Rights. Everyone knows that committees and commissions do not always result in legislation, and it is simply disingenuous for Clegg to claim anything else.
By contrast, if the Lib Dems do not support the boundary review they will be welching on an explicit element of the Coalition agreement on which the Conservatives already delivered their part – the AV referendum. That the Lib Dems are disingenuous and break deals self-righteously is hardly news, but it should not be allowed to pass without remark.