Many Lib Dems have taken to saying that, from now on, the government will have to stick rigidly to the Coalition Agreement, and if it's not in there, it's not going to happen. Interesting thought, that. Let's reflect on what it might mean…
Page 19, second bullet, of the Agreement, in the section on Europe, states:
"We will ensure that there is no further transfer of sovereignty or powers over the course of the next Parliament"
Strictly interpreted, we see two elements here. First, it is agreed that there should be no further transfer of sovereignty – no transfer of "competencies" in the Euro-jargon (this is the term used in the third bullet of page 19). A "competency" is an area that falls within the acquis communautaire of the European Union, the matters over which it is for the EU to legislate. A power, on the other hand, is something that falls under an area of EU competence but has not yet been taken by the EU.
But there have been multiple transfers of power to the EU since the Coalition agreement, as the EU exercises its competency to legislate in various areas. That has gone through, so far, because we have not been interpreting the Coalition agreement strictly by the letter. Are the Lib Dems keen for us now to proceed on a strict basis here?
On House of Lords reform, what the Coalition Agreement actually says is this:
"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."
Thus, under the Coalition Agreement, interpreted strictly, there is no commitment whatever to legislate on reform of the House of Lords – merely a commitment to establish a committee. I think many Conservatives would be happy to engage with such a committee for the next few years.
Another committee promised in the Coalition Agreement is this one:
"We will establish a commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question’."
Can we take it that these Lib Dems will be keen to see that established soon?
On to fixed term parliaments. This hasn't passed yet – it's still in the Report stage in the Lords. Under the Coalition agreement (p26, final bullet), dissolution requires 55% of the House to agree. But the bill as it stands requires 66%. Can we expect that to be amended back to 55% now?
My guess is that the Lib Dems don't have these areas in mind so much as the NHS reforms. In fact there are reams and reams in the Coalition Agreement about reforming the NHS. But I suggest we stick strictly to one (p26, final bullet of Section 22):
"We will give every patient the power to choose any healthcare provider that meets NHS standards, within NHS prices. This includes independent, voluntary and community sector providers."
I hadn't noticed much about requiring all internships to be based purely on qualifications in the Coalition Agreement. But I did notice this (p18):
"We will promote improved community relations and opportunities for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, including by providing internships for underrepresented minorities in every Whitehall department and funding a targeted national enterprise mentoring scheme for BAME people who want to start a business."
This, of course, is the proposal to use internships as devices to promote opportunity, at the expense of equality of opportunity (non-BAME people would not have access to these internships) and regardless of whether those BAME people have the best qualifications for the positions involved. By definition, these internships are dependent on who your parents are, and are not allocated on merit. I approve. It appears that Nick Clegg doesn't.
Don't get me wrong, here – I don't think we should stick rigidly to the Coalition Agreement. Political needs evolve all the time. That is a key reason it is right to elect people, not programmes. And there are key areas where it should already be clear to Lib Dems that the Coalition Agreement is not sufficient, e.g. its statement (p11) that "We will establish a Commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law, and protects and extends British liberties." We do not want to continue to be bound by, for example, rulings under the European Convention that have the effect of requiring us to continue with Control Orders, and we should not accept that some foreign court can tell us who should and should not be allowed to vote in elections to the Mother of Parliaments.
My point is merely that if the Lib Dems do fancy going down the path of strict to-the-letter interpretation of the Coalition Agreement, two can play at that game. And they might find that the consequences, in respect of constitutional reform, European reform, and even NHS reform are not precisely what they imagine.