By Matthew Barrett
Follow Matthew on Twitter.
An interview with Richard Reeves, who stepped down from being one of Nick Clegg's senior advisors this week, in the Independent today has attracted some interest. Reeves' main comments focus on the ramifications for the Coalition's blue half if Tory MPs do not vote to cut off debate on the Lords reform Bill coming before the House. Reeves says:
"There would be broader consequences for the government's programme, particularly around political and parliamentary reform. The idea that failure to deliver a government commitment on Lords reform would be consequence-free is for the birds."
Lords reform, he says, "goes to the heart of what coalition is about – making and keeping deals … Anyone who thinks Nick Clegg will shrug his shoulders, say 'never mind' and 'everyone tried our best', will be in for a rude awakening. That is not going to happen. A deal is a deal."
Reeves seems to be implying, as other Lib Dems have said over the past weeks, that it would be unreasonable for Tories to rebel against something that was in the Coalition agreement. That's a defensible argument. Until you re-read the part of the Coalition Agreement in which Lords reform is mentioned:
"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. In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.."
Proposals have been brought forward. Job done. Reeves' argument, that if the Tories don't vote for Lords reform, there will be no boundary review, is also out of touch with the Coalition agreement, which says:
"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. We will whip both Parliamentary parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum."
This explicity links the AV referendum with the boundary review, not Lords reform. Perhaps most importantly, Nick Clegg himself was asked by Tory MP Eleanor Laing, during a hearing of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in April:
"It is now being reported that the Liberal Democrat party, as part of the coalition, will not continue to support the boundaries legislation unless House of Lords reform is passed in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Is that the case?"
"How can I put it? It just does not work like that. There is no sort of "You do this. I’ll do that. You do this. I’ll do that". One just has to look at each of these things on their own merits and in their own terms. … I have said that I do not recognise this idea that there are links between one bit of what is actually, as I have described earlier, quite a long list of constitutional political changes we are making, and another. … There is no link; of course, there is no link."
So: there is no link in the Coalition Agreement between Lords reform and the boundary review, as Nick Clegg explicitly affirms. Not only that, but if the Lib Dems' argument boils down to it not being reasonable for Coalition MPs to work against Coalition Agreement policies, they may have to watch out for some uncomfortable moments in the coming months, should Tory MPs wish to push the British Bill of Rights, recall of MPs, and so on.