With this government, it is not ‘crisis, what crisis?’ but ‘crisis, which crisis?’ We now have a coalition emergency prompted by the fact that Lords reform has been dumped in the long grass despite being in the programme for government. We have a Tory party crisis occasioned by the biggest rebellion of David Cameron’s leadership and a Liberal Democrat crisis caused by the fact that their first period in office in more than 70 years now looks likely to bring no progress on the constitutional issues about which they care so deeply.
It hasn’t been the usual Liberal Democrat suspects sounding off against David Cameron this week. The Lib Dems protesting are those who have — to date — been most committed to making the coalition work. It is they who feel most let down by the Prime Minister. Reflecting on Cameron’s decision to withdraw the critical programme motion for the Lords reform bill because of backbench opposition, one said, ‘the Prime Minister needs to understand that if he is going to run a coalition, then he must be able to deliver his side of the bargain. If he can’t, well, then there’s a problem’.
There is a feeling among the deputy Prime Minister’s allies that faced with a tough vote, Cameron has not been prepared to do to his MPs what Clegg has done to his. They believe that the Prime Minister has chosen to preserve his own political capital rather than expend it for the good of the coalition. Certainly, the accounts one hears of the Prime Minister’s weekend phone calls do not suggest an all-out effort to win over doubters. I understand that when he rang one of the less committed rebels, someone who should have been turned easily, Cameron simply asked him to explain why he was voting against the bill. He did not attempt an impassioned demand for loyalty to the coalition.
Clegg’s circle point out that now that the Tories have deviated from the coalition agreement, their leader can never again go to a meeting of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party and tell them they have to vote for something because it is in the agreement.
Whatever they might say in public, the Liberal Democrat leadership know that their dream of electing the House of Lords by proportional representation is now effectively over. One says, ‘realistically, I know it is dead.’ But they insist that they can’t simply accept defeat. As one puts it, ‘the only piece of constitutional legislation this government does can’t be the one that makes it easier for the Conservative party to win the next election’, a reference to the coming boundary review which is thought to be worth between a dozen and 20 seats to the Conservatives.
If the Liberal Democrats vote down the boundary review, the coalition will be as good as finished. They can only defeat the new boundaries if their ministers oppose it as well as their backbenchers, and even in this era of diminished Cabinet responsibility, voting against the government isn’t compatible with being in office. Moreover, if the prospect of boundary reform is gone, then the Conservative leadership will have less interest in keeping the coalition alive.
Angry Liberal Democrats, though, are just part of Cameron’s troubles. He also has an emboldened parliamentary party on his hands. When the programme motion was pulled on Tuesday afternoon, No. 10 thought it had averted an embarrassment in the division lobbies. Six hours later, Cameron — to his and the whips’ surprise — faced the biggest revolt of his leadership to date.
The rebellion of 89 Tory MPs on the second reading of the Lords reform bill sent several messages. The first was that the Conservative benches will not let this bill pass. They wanted to demonstrate to the Prime Minister that he had no choice but to tell his deputy that the bill has to be dropped. Second, they were showing that they won’t permit the coalition to legislate anything that harms the long-term interests of the Conservative party. Finally, but most significantly, they were saying that they are not prepared to take the Prime Minister’s word for what is in the best interests of the party and the country. It is this last point that must worry Cameron most: no political leader can operate successfully when his party is second-guessing his decisions.
As the AV referendum and the EU veto demonstrated, when push comes to shove, Cameron sides with his party, not his coalition partners. But he still needs to refresh his sense of where his party stands. Too often, he doesn’t seem to know. He brushed aside warnings from the chief whip and senior backbenchers that the Tories wouldn’t accept this Lords reform bill.
Somehow, though, Cameron has to come up with something to placate his coalition partners as well as his party. Clegg cannot face the Liberal Democrat conference this autumn with Lords reform stuck and nothing else to show the faithful. If he did, his leadership would come under pressure.
The question now is how much longer the coalition can survive. Remarkably, it is notionally less than halfway through its time in office. But few expect it to run all the way to 2015. Instead, the assumption among Tories in Downing Street has been that they will move to a supply-and-confidence arrangement sometime early in 2014. This point, though, keeps moving earlier and earlier in people’s minds. As one senior Tory MP observes, ‘Once you recognise that it is coming to an end, the date for the break-up keeps moving forward.’
Revealingly, two of the Prime Minister’s biggest announcements of recent weeks — one on welfare, the other on Europe — have been about what he would do after the next election if he did not have to share power. Indeed, if the Tories are the largest party next time round but don’t have a majority, they are now more likely to govern as a minority rather than form another coalition.
British politics is unused, and unsuited, to coalition, which requires a willingness to compromise on principle and to share power alien to our system. The size of the rebellion on Lords reform indicates that the Tory party is, for its own good reasons, not prepared to either to compromise or to share. What is dying alongside Lords reform is not only this coalition but future ones, too.
spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse for the latest on the coalition crack-up.