Henry Forth writes from Westminster in London: So, the House of Lords reform has officially kicked the bucket. For the present Parliament at least. Not that anyone in the Westminster village cares all that much really. Except the Liberal Democrats, of course, but then no one takes them seriously anymore on almost anything.
As for their squeaky, almost a Head Boy, Nick Clegg – oh dear. Oh very dear. Doesn’t Clegg look and sound a pathetic goody-two-shoes with no real power who knows that his party and the country have written him off and are simply waiting for the arch realist, Vince Cable, to succeed him – as clearly Cable thinks he should.
Clegg has lost his way and his political madness is shown clearly when he announced that Lords’ Reform had been binned thanks to the nasties in the Tory Party. There was Clegg, in a sharp suit, white shirt and bright blue tie. Blue tie? Has no one told him in his strictly yellow tie Party that bright blue is Thatcherite blue and is worn by all High Tories including former members of the Bullingdon? So there he was, a bleating and moaning Clegg wearing his blue prefect’s badge.
We should get a few points clear: when 91 Tory MPs defied the Whips and voted against the government on the Lords bill in July the political hack-pack at Westminster dutifully huddled together and agreed that David Cameron was furious. This, of course, was rubbish. Cameron was very pleased.
Cameron never wanted the Lords’ Reform as it would get in the way of far more important legislation. Nor did Cameron believe that the draft reform would work and it most certainly would not do the job.
This Parliament was only going to get one crack at Lords’ Reform and the draft to reduce noble members of that place to 450, with 80 per cent of them elected, would not have been what was required. Moreover, such a radical constitutional Bill would take weeks and weeks of committee and floor of the House debate and if put through, would be there for a decade or more – no one else would want to revisit such a vexed subject.
When the Tory rebellion succeeded last month, Cameron promised he’d have another crack at it in the autumn. Cameron is not quite a dummy. He knew full well that he would not be coming back to it because there was absolutely zilch chance that the 91 would back down. But to protect Clegg, Cameron had to say that he’d try again. Now we know the truth of all that.
Clegg had to face his own backbenchers. There are only 57 LibDem MPs and 22 of those are ministers – all trying to keep their jobs – thus the anger was not nearly so noisy as reported. There was only one person in the LibDem hut with his job on the line: Clegg. He had not pulled off a promise and Cameron by proxy (i.e. 91 Tories doing him a favour) had stuffed him. What did Clegg say? He said the government was not fair! The government was not keeping its word!
As my late godfather James would have roared in his ducal basso profundo: ‘Not fair? Not keeping its word? Is the man weak in the head? Politics was not invented for people to keep their word.’
So what does Clegg do now? He whines that he is, get this: ‘Pushing the pause button on proposed changes to parliamentary boundaries.’
That is the one reform that’s worthwhile because its purpose is to equalise the size of constituencies in 2015. MPs have already agreed on this but they need to vote once more on the implementation time frame before the proposed 2015 election.
The Tories could do well with boundary reform and could pick up a couple of extra seats. But now Clegg says, in an effort to sound powerful: ‘I have told the Prime Minister that when, in due course, parliament votes on boundary changes for the 2015 election I will be instructing my party to oppose them.’
Cameron is not so bothered. Party managers will sort that one before 2015.
Surely Wallace and his Labour Lads will come to his rescue? But to do what? Ed Miliband’s party wants Lords’ Reform but doesn’t think it’s worth going to the mattresses over. That’s that then? Possibly.
When Parliament returns next month, the real future for the Coalition will be tested on economic and fiscal reform and innovation. Lords’ Reform will be ‘below the gangway’ stuff. Cameron won’t want it mentioned because he’s perfectly happy with the story so far. Clegg won’t want to hear about it because it shows that he is a nothing in the Coalition. Give him an office, an official car, close protection (whom is he afraid of, Vince Cable?) and a seat next to the Prime Minister in the House and that’s that. A nothing man with no power other than 50 odd seats.
Clegg of course, insists he has proper power. The man clearly has a genuine inflated and unsurpassed illusory sense of his own importance because his most obvious talent is not for party political leadership (no Lib has had that since Paddy Ashdown). Clegg entirely forgets that he has always had only one function: to make David Cameron Prime Minister. What Clegg cannot forget is what LibDem insiders are saying in the Commons’ tea rooms: were the Coalition to fall apart, they (the LibDems) would be decimated in the ensuing general election.
But if Clegg falls he could always be handed down a job as an EU Commissioner and like the other failures in his trade, a seat in the Lords – wearing his nice new Tory blue tie, of course.