Nick Clegg’s announcement on 6 August that he is abandoning his bill for an elected second chamber is a serious defeat for the Deputy Prime Minister which also marks a turning point for the coalition. For the coalition, it underlines a point repeatedly made in our book The Politics of Coalition that we have a coalition government, but not a coalition Parliament. Conservative and Lib Dem backbenchers have little love for the coalition, and have rebelled in this Parliament with unprecedented frequency. But because they tend to rebel on different issues, the government’s majority is generally safe. Generally, but not always, as the 91 Conservative rebels signalled over Lords reform. Parliament cannot be taken for granted.
Some Conservative MPs will privately be relieved at Nick Clegg’s announcement that the Lib Dems will no longer support the constituency boundary changes, because in the musical chairs involved in shrinking the Commons from 650 to 600 MPs several of them stood to lose their seats. But publicly this retaliation signals a harsher tone between Clegg and Cameron, an end to the spirit of generosity and give and take which characterised the first two years, and a more narrowly contractual approach to their coalition partnership. There is even less hope now for ‘Coalition 2.0’, a mid term coalition review announcing renewed plans for the second half of the Parliament. But the dangers of a narrowly contractual approach are twofold: first, that the original coalition agreement will not stand up to that kind of detailed scrutiny, because it was negotiated in such haste after the election; second, that circumstances have moved on since May 2010, particularly in the worsening of the economy. The coalition partners need to keep ahead of the game, and not continually going back to a document now over two years old.
Lords reform provides a good example. An elected second chamber is clearly dead, at least in this Parliament, because there is not a majority in either House to support it. Only a referendum can now overcome the opposition of the parliamentarians; and Clegg should have held a pre-legislative referendum to test the will of the people, as Labour shrewdly did with devolution in 1997. But that is looking back. Looking ahead, Clegg need not give up on Lords reform. As his Liberal predecessor David Steel has repeatedly suggested, there are more modest reforms which could be put in place now. These would cap the size of the House, which is ballooning out of control; allow peers to retire; give the House proper powers to discipline its members; and remove the remaining hereditary peers. For these incremental reforms there would be a better chance of support in both Houses. The whole story of Lords reform has been a series of incremental reforms, each building on the last. It will be a test of Clegg’s leadership whether he is willing to opt for some reforms rather than none.