The news that David Cameron has been unable to persuade Conservative MPs to support the House of Lords Reform Bill is disappointing, but unsurprising given the scale of the threatened rebellion. Liberal Democrats must accept this situation – frustrating as it is – and concentrate on what is now important: the party’s response.
Anger will be the natural reaction of many in the party – and understandably so. Liberal Democrat MPs have walked through the Aye Lobby more times than they care to remember to support Conservative measures from the coalition agreement. Yet when it comes to doing their bit to uphold the bargain, a large group of Conservative MPs now seem unable to put the national interest – a stable government – ahead of their desire to give Nick Clegg a bloody nose.
And to think there were some who believed the Lib Dems would be the coalition partner too immature to be trusted with power.
But Liberal Democrats should avoid this natural anger turning to petulance. Responding to the irresponsibility of the Tories in kind will be good for neither government nor party.
A public spat between bad-tempered backbench Lib Dems and rebellious Tories would be unedifying for both but worse politics for the junior partners. After all, Liberal Democrat success in coalition will depend on demonstrating two things: that pluralistic politics delivers good government and that the party has the sense of responsibility befitting a party of power.
That is not to say that there should not be consequences stemming from this significant breach of trust. The reduction in the size of the House of Commons and the associated boundary changes are the obvious measures for the government to drop. Individual Conservative MPs might not be keen on the changes, but their overall effect would undoubtedly be beneficial to the Tories. And, as Lord Rennard has pointed out, there are strong principled reasons to drop these changes, which would strengthen the executive’s grip over the legislature, given that there is no longer going to be a legitimate House of Lords to redress the imbalance.
However, this should not be done in a vindictive way. Nick Clegg should hold a press conference and calmly but firmly confirm that, as the prime minister is no longer able to deliver his MPs on an important measure contained within the coalition agreement, Liberal Democrats are not willing to deliver the Conservative’s favoured constitutional reform.
This is an unfortunate situation to be in, Clegg should say, but Conservative MPs have to stick to their part of the agreement if they want to deliver on Conservative priorities. And he should assure the public that for the Liberal Democrat’s part this issue has no wider bearing on the remainder of the coalition’s programme, with the two parties united in the efforts to repair Britain’s economy.
Such a statement would be unusual, but it would be mature and responsible. And if the Conservative response is neither mature nor responsible the public can make up their own mind about which approach they prefer.
Right-wing Tories actually have good reason to feel in rebellious mood – this coalition, ruling from the centre, is shutting out their agenda on a whole range of issues. But if their actions over Lords reform, and the consequences that flowed from them, makes them realise one thing it should be this: only by working with, not against, the Liberal Democrats do they have a chance of delivering on their priorities. And the greatest irony is this: by killing Lords reform, and therefore the boundary changes, this group has just made it a whole lot more likely that their party will be reliant on Liberal Democrat votes for another five years.
* Nick Thornsby is Thursday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs here.