With constitutional reform generally more a Lib Dem than Tory pursuit, the Conservative minister overseeing it finds himself at the coalface of coalition politics, hears Sam Macrory.
‘Nick Clegg’s babysitter’. As job descriptions go – and that one came direct from a Conservative MP – it’s neither glamorous nor appetising, but nor is it entirely inaccurate. For when Mark Harper was asked to work alongside the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister and steer through a series of controversial reforms to the constitution, he took on the challenge of convincing hostile colleagues on the merits of both a referendum on voting reform and a radical makeover of the House of Lords.
But while Clegg’s grand plans made headlines, with limited attention Harper has also managed to take Lib Dems with him in agreeing to slash the number of parliamentary constituencies by 50, as well as passing radical legislation to ensure fixed term Parliaments.
“Mark Harper has played his hand brilliantly. He has been completely loyal to the coalition and Nick Clegg, and steered through the Commons measures which were deeply unpopular with his Conservative colleagues, without appearing to be a Lib Dem stooge”, says constitutional expert Robert Hazell. “He has also quietly pushed ahead the Conservative constitutional reform agenda, and at the end of this Parliament it seems likely that more Conservative reforms will have been implemented than Lib Dem ones’.
The more unforgiving parliamentary observer might suggest that Harper’s success is due to his unshowy, rather workmanlike style, but others admire the calm way in which he removes the sting from potentially toxic subjects. Or perhaps, as Hazell has argued, the Conservative Party are closet constitutional reformers.
“That’s interesting. We don’t talk about it as much or have it as a separate strand of policy thinking,” Harper suggests, from his sizeable, if spartan, Cabinet Office quarters. “We never really put it in a box called constitutional reform, but whether that’s to do with the makeup of different parties, I don’t know.”
The Lib Dem presence has certainly, raised the profile of constitutional reform, however, which Harper credits to “the fact that the deputy prime minister has overall responsibility and it is all stacked in one place”.
Read the full article on epolitix.com