By Peter Hoskin
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Just another quiet Monday afternoon in August? Not at all. Nick Clegg has just given a statement confirming something that is equal parts unsurprising and politically significant: Lords reform is dead for this Parliament. He says that David Cameron has been unable to persuade enough Conservative MPs to back the proposed legislation, and so it’s been binned. As a result, the Lib Dems will now vote against the boundary changes as currently proposed, although the legislation will still go through Parliament.
The Deputy Prime Minister was eager to suck the poison from this moment, claiming that this is the first time since the election that the Coalition has broken one of the mutual bargains in their original Agreement. But that fact also highlights how noteworthy today’s news is. Today marks a new chapter in the biography of this government, and it is likely that all subsequent chapters will be ill-natured. Many Tories and non-Tories alike are pointing out that Lords reform and the boundary review weren’t actually linked in the Coalition Agreement as Clegg linked them today. The actual passage from the Agreement ties up the boundary review with the AV referendum, as below. So is it Clegg who’s going back on what was promised?
“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.”
And if the general anger doesn’t unpick the ties of Coalition, then what about what will come next? Despite having the majority of their manifesto implemented in government, the Lib Dems have now lost ground in several areas that are psychologically important to them: tuition fees, voting reform, Lords reform, Europe, etc. They will be seeking to redefine themselves now, before the next election — and that will probably mean a fiercer effort to portray themselves as the kinder, more caring half of the Coalition. We got a bit of this from Mr Clegg today, with his emphasis on what his party are doing for child poverty and the like.
And it’s not just about the Liberal Democrats and the Coalition. The Conservatives look to have lost out today, even if widespread backbench disgruntlement has been avoided. The arithmetics of the next election were already weighted against the party, but without boundary changes it looks almost insoluble. Much more will have to be done to attract new voters from outside the usual heartlands. How to do so is a focus of ConservativeHome’s own Majority Conservatism project.