The 15 words that mean the Coalition won’t fall, no matter what happens to Lords reform

There’s a very simple reason why — even if enough Tory MPs inflict the Coalition’s first defeat on a key plank of the Coalition Agreement which appeared in their last three manifestos — the Government will not fall tomorrow. It’s these 15 words from the May 2010 Programme for Government:

The deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement.

There is also, of course, the small matter of the current opinion polls: neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems will relish a rush to the ballot box at the moment. A Coalition once held together by radicalism and conviction is now bound together by a pact of mutually assured destruction.

The inconsistencies in Tory backbenchers’ position on Lords reform are legion. I won’t unpick them here, as Nick Thornsby has already highlighted six examples on his blog here.

What the Lords fracas reveals about the Tories’ mood

More interesting than trying to pick through the rubble of Tory excuses is to try and understand why a policy on which the two Coalition parties officially agree should be showing up so clearly David Cameron’s inability to lead his party.

First, let’s repeat — as it still appears to be news to many Tory MPs — the Conservative manifestos in 2001, 2005 and 2010 all committed the party to reform. However, in reality what this means is that the Tory leadership decided to back Lords reform: most MPs and party members are resistant to change. Why? Well, the clue’s in the party’s name. And as the Conservative party isn’t a democratic organisation in which the membership gets to determine policy, inevitably many of their MPs feel disenfranchised. I sympathise with them. In fact, I agree with them: it must be terrible to have their policies decided in such an wholly unaccountable and undemocratic way…

Secondly, what’s also starting to emerge is the Tory backbenches’ frustration with David Cameron not only failing to win the last election, but also giving every appearance of looking like the Tories won’t win the next one either. Many Tory MPs now feel in hindsight ‘bounced’ by their leadership into accepting a Coalition they increasingly resent, arguing (almost certainly correctly) that if the Tories had formed a minority government in May 2010 and then called a second election in autumn 2010 on a pledge to ‘sort out the economy’ they would now have a majority of their own. David Cameron’s eagerness to make his “big, open and comprehensive offer” to the Lib Dems is seen as (another) major strategic error.

So we have a policy many Tory MPs feel has been imposed on them, backed by a Government many Tory MPs feel has been imposed on them. It’s safe to say Tory MPs feel more than a bit imposed on.

Tory MPs champion a Pyrrhic victory

As so often when emotions run high, the Tories are failing to see the opportunity democratic reform actually presents them with. As I wrote back in April:

There is an odd lack of self-confidence within the Tory party. For all their talk of the wish to build a Conservative majority at the next election, they seem perversely unwilling to try and do so by persuading a majority of the public to back conservatism at the ballot box. I suppose I should be grateful the Tories haven’t yet grasped that their best hope of keeping Britain conservative is to offer the people true democracy. This country is, I believe, instinctively a small-c conservative nation, culturally and economically. It’s a painful realisation for a liberal.

Many of the policies the Tories champion — deep Euroscepticism, anti-immigration, welfare-crackdowns — probably command majority support among the population. If the Tories were more pluralist and less partisan they would realise they could build a right-wing coalition much more easily if they got behind democratic reform than by continuing to oppose it in the hope their party might once again win an outright majority. Thankfully they’re too blinded by impotent fury to realise they’re cutting off their noses [/mixed metaphor].

The reality is that if they veto the Coalition Agreement’s promise of Lords reform, the Lib Dems are likely to veto the Coalition Agreement’s promise of constituency boundary changes. As a democrat, I think that would be quite wrong: equalising constituency boundaries is another vital reform. But surely no-one will be surprised if Lib Dem MPs who have never yet voted down a Coalition Agreement measure cock a snook at the Tories?

If they do, and Lords reform and the boundary review are both stalemated, it’ll be a double whammy for the Tories. They’ll stand to lose up to 20 ‘easy’ gains at the next election AND make it much easier for incumbent Lib Dem MPs to defend their patches. As I noted last month reporting Peter Kellner’s take on the Lib Dem position:

At its most apocalyptic, the next election has the potential to become a ‘perfect storm’ for the Lib Dems: a first-past-the-post election fought against the backdrop of having been part of an unpopular government at a time of massive economic fragility on new and enlarged constituencies.

Defeating Lords reform might be seen as a victory by Tory backbenchers. If it is, it’s their most Pyrrhic victory to date.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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38 Comments

  • Tony Dawson 9th Jul '12 - 11:03pm

    “The deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement.”

    If only that had been true to date. We might not have been lumbered with the disgraceful NHS fiasco. Which will eventually cost us dearly, thus affecting either the deficit or the quality of services or both..

  • ” And as the Conservative party isn’t a democratic organisation in which the membership gets to determine policy”

    Perhaps a nasty LD has been telling me porkies, but I used to believe that an LD manifesto had to be agreed at your conference. However someone (on this very site) told me that this wasn’t the case, I’ve also been led to believe that your last manifesto didn’t have a huge amount of consultation. If that is true then you’re not much different really.

    “The reality is that if they veto the Coalition Agreement’s promise of Lords reform, …..”

    The Agreement states “We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation”

    So have the Tories blocked a committee then? If not, then surely they have already met the agreement?

    “…. the Lib Dems are likely to veto the Coalition Agreement’s promise of constituency boundary changes.”

    There was an agreement to bring forward a bill for “more equal sized constituencies”, this is in the same part of the agreement that covers the AV referendum. As it is covered together and the referendum was delivered upon, why shouldn’t Conservatives feel miffed if the LDP suddenly try to link it to something that wasn’t even in the coalition agreement?

    ” They’ll stand to lose up to 20 ‘easy’ gains at the next election AND make it much easier for incumbent Lib Dem MPs to defend their patches. ”

    But you make the mistake of forgetting that a lot more Lab/Con seats will probably disappear – therefore some of those opposing may not care about it anyway. You also assume that voters will look at what has happened and decide to stay with the LDP because you made a stand on this. Perhaps you should read the earlier article by Paul Haydon, I wonder if joe public will really care, or if it will even register. What may register is the Government looking split and the LDP making a fuss about something the public may want, but not at this time (preferring a sound economy before fiddling with the Lords so to speak).

    If the coalition stays together, it won’t be because of anything written in the agreement. Instead it will be because neither Party wants an election at this time, especially as both realise that they may lose many seats to Labour.

    “what’s also starting to emerge is the Tory backbenches’ frustration with David Cameron not only failing to win the last election, but also giving every appearance of looking like the Tories won’t win the next one either”

    The Conservatives have often been quite brutal in getting rid of potential losers, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a new Conservative PM prior to 2015 – this whole affair may bring that event forward. Is that what you really want?

  • Richard Dean 10th Jul '12 - 12:21am

    Those 15 words do explain a lot!

    It would be surpirsing if a relatively little matter like Lords reform was to crash the coalition, given that the coalition has survived August riots, Abu Qatada, banks, and fracas about HE funding and the NHS

  • There was as much consultation on the last manifesto as any other – and it has never been formally agreed by conference.

    It is produced by the FPC which has a membership the majority of members of which are elected by conference

  • “it has never been formally agreed by conference.”
    Thanks Hywel, I sort of assumed it was the correct gen as someone would have said something at the time.

  • Maybe some Tories oppose making the House of Lords elected because they aren’t democrats, but there are good arguments against the current proposals. One is that, in practice, we’ll all be given people to vote for who are chosen by the main parties. Those are the ones who’ll get elected. Our votes in a proportional system will affect how many senators are elected for each party, but we’ll have precious little say over who they are. Not a lot better than the current system where the party in power appoints its own Lords. Secondly, the proposal is that the senators sit for 15 years and can never be voted out. How anyone thinks that is democratic is completely beyond me. Thirdly, bishops automatically get made senators. Again, how exactly is that democratic?

    On top of all this, it isn’t clear how we won’t find the new Lords mostly in opposition to the government of the day, trying to defeat the will of the people. Fifteen year terms (even with a third elected every five years) mean there will be a significant lag in the political make-up of the Lords compared with the Commons. That means a reduction in the effectiveness of general elections for the Commons and could well contribute to an increase in overall dissatisfaction with politics. i.e. What’s the point in voting if the current balance of power in the Lords means nothing can change?

  • Geoffrey, you may be right. However, it feels to me like the politicians stitching us up. The people most likely to be added to the parties’ lists for the new Lords will be those who have just retired (or been voted out) as MPs. We see this at present where, quite often, failed MPs find themselves appointed to the Lords. In future, the appointments will be made to the candidate list rather than directly to the Lords but, in practice, the result will be little different.

    Then, for those lucky senators, there will be a safe job for 15 years followed by a very nice pension. Tell me that most present MPs wouldn’t find this a very congenial winding down to their careers in politics.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, it is likely that the first batch of senators will include a number of Lib Dem MPs who lose their seats at the next election. Would that reflect the will of the people?

  • Geoffrey Payne10th Jul ’12 – 6:52am……………Despite all that Julian, once the bill is passed the direction of travel has been set for more changes in the future………………

    That was the excuse used when LibDems supported the NHS ‘reorganisation’.

    As for “a pact of mutually assured destruction” A well remembered phrase from the cold war era; MAD just what our continuing involvement in the coalition has come down to.

  • @Stephen Tall
    The problem is that the committee’s recommendations are not being carried forwards. If the coalition had included the referendum then they would have taken ammunition away from both Tory rebels and Labour…..

  • jenny barnes 10th Jul '12 - 8:34am

    “The deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement.”

    Ok. I see no contradiction between that and a move to a supply and confidence arrangement. If the Tories cannot deliver their side of the coalition to support Government business, I see no reason why the LDs should, if it happens not to suit them. It would make for a much more interesting 2 and a bit years to the next election.

  • @Stephen Tall
    “It’s simply not correct to say that the Agreement promised only to “establish a committee”.”

    I’m sorry Stephen, but would you care to point out the phrase that states a bill will be brought forward as I can’t seem to find it in the agreement. I wasn’t being selective, most of what it written in the part you quote is irrelevant to the discussion, that being the LDP failing to back boundary reform due to some non-existent agreement being broken.

  • Elizabeth Patterson 10th Jul '12 - 9:49am

    Partly to help the gender balance in the comments, ie 14 boys to one girl, I submit a comment on this argument amongst the boys.
    I watched the whole debate yesterday . The Tories showed what a really nasty lot they are as they jeered like the lowest kind of football hooligans, their women being the most shrill and unpleasant. Having up to now been a strong supporter of the coalition I felt real distaste for the first time; from the rabble rousing of Malcolm Rifkind to the preposterous posturing of Soames the Churchill son-in-law who sold the Churchill family papers for personal gain.

    For the first time I felt that Confidence and Supply would separate us from this lot while still allowing us to support the economic reasons for the coalition.

    But then this would perhaps be a win for Labour. Their hypocrisy was so obvious, with the honorable exception of a few like Alan Johnson and Peter Hain.
    So perhaps a veto on the boundary changes will be the best compromise. But we cannot roll over.

    PS: One moment of joy when Charles Kennedy made a rare appearance to give a fine speech.Welcome back.

  • I think if the Libs Dems were to break the coalition agreement and vote against fair and equal votes as has been sugested here it would be the end of the coalition and the Lib Dems would have failed in there two major objectives:

    1. To demonstrate that coalitions are workable.
    2. That the lib Dems are a serious grown up party ready for government.

  • Yes the 15 words say it all – regardless of the final outcome of the Commons debates on the Lords Reform bill, the LibDem MP’s will still have to turn up to work as usual and deliver the Deficit Reduction Programme, until 2015.

    Aside: @Geoffrey Payne
    “once the bill is passed the direction of travel has been set for more changes in the future.”
    Confirmation that the current bill is seriously flawed and will keep the House occupied for years to come with its own naval. Perhaps this is a good thing as it would reduce their ability to interfere with the economy and business.

  • Elizabeth Patterson 10th Jul '12 - 12:04pm

    Dean,
    Your points: 1 Coalitions can work if the partners are honorable in their dealings.
    The Tories have already broken the honour test once, when Cameron joined the NO campaign and
    sanctioned personal attacks on Nick in spite of a personal agreement . to keep out of it.
    Now they are using their backbenchers to break HoL reform that the Tory leadership does not really
    want.
    2. That we are a “serious grown up party . I think we could prove this by not working with a
    dishonorable party that is really working against us all the time . “““““““““““““““““““““““““““““

  • @Elizabeth Patterson
    Rather desperate I would say.

    Coalitions can work if parties respect the contracts were put in place. A question for you, if you contracted some one to build a shed in your garden, do you think you’d be able to sue them later for not building a garage?

    At it’s most basic this is what it is about, the honouring of a contract. There was no contract to deliver HoL reform, only to create a committee. There was a contract clause to bring forward modifications to the HoC by allowing a referendum on AV and re-sizing boundaries – so far one part of that contract clause has been completed.

  • Elizabeth Patterson 10th Jul '12 - 1:51pm

    Chris-sh,
    If the intention was to “create a committee” that is what the manifestos should have said. In not being honest about their intentions the Tories have shown that they are as duplicitous as Labour. In wanting to actually pursue reform we are calling the bluff of both old parties.
    I was totally loyal to the coalition until yesterday; but it was a really ugly debate with jeering Tories protecting class privilege and Labour trying to disguise their wish to get a bit of privilege for themselves. Both parties want to keep the privilege of being able to reward their timeservers and donors with an ermine cloak and a very good free club.

    We really can’t work with the dishonesty of either party and this is the explanation we should give to the electorate;
    trust and respect has broken down in the coalition.
    We should now move to Confidence and Supply and start by voting down the boundary changes.

  • As an outsider, I see two problems with the “deficit reduction trumps all” line:

    a. the Coalition isn’t delivering on deficit reduction ( target missed and cahnged , economy back in recession etc)

    b. a Supply and Confidence Agreement could deliver as much on deficit reduction as a formal coalition.

  • John Higgins 10th Jul '12 - 2:08pm

    The Lib Dems don’t have enough backbench MPs to defeat the government under any circumstances

  • @Elizabeth Patterson
    “If the intention was to “create a committee” that is what the manifestos should have said.”

    But surely the manifesto of each Party must be subordinate to the coalition contract? The coalition contract clearly states that a committee would be formed to look at the matter and put forward suggestions. I believe that said contract was also approved by your conference, so it’s been common knowledge for quite some time.

    “We really can’t work with the dishonesty of either party ”
    I’d be more impressed with “We really can’t work with the dishonesty of either of the 3 parties” tbh – each (and yes I do include LDs) are playing a game to try and ensure that they come out with the best deal for themselves. I’d say a proper debate with enactment of amendments that may be approved could sort this out, the only sticking point being the referendum that Labour wants (with some justification as it is a huge constitutional change). Putting some 10 day limit of this issue actually smacks of desperation (and this limit is where the main argument seems to be at the moment).

  • My view on what should happen if it all goes wrong tonight: http://robspoliticsblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/lords-reform-we-really-need-this.html

  • @Rob
    I haven’t got one of the required accounts so can’t comment on your blog, but I would say that no matter how much you say it, it doesn’t make it true:

    The coalition agreement has been met, a committee was formed and proposals put forward. That was all that was in the agreement, if your Party wasn’t able to work that out then perhaps you’re not a safe pair of hands.

    Also, regarding manifesto pledges:

    Labour
    “We will consult widely on these proposals, and on an open-list proportional representation electoral system for the Second Chamber, before putting them to the people in a referendum.”

    Conservative
    “We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords”

    So one wanted a referendum and the other wanted consensus, the former isn’t in the proposal and it obviously fails on the consensus requirement of the latter.

    Lib Dem
    “Replace the House of Lords with a fully-elected second chamber with considerably fewer members than the current House.”

    So it doesn’t even meet your own manifesto commitment. In other words all three parties need to sit down and come to a consensus, there should be no time limit on this as it may take more than 10 days.

    Of course, your manifesto also says “and give Parliament control over its own agenda so that all bills leaving the Commons have been fully debated.” So perhaps you’re failing there by trying to dictate the time frame (incidentally, the CP manifesto also states “allowing MPs the time to scrutinise law effectively”.

    If the bill is lost then it will probably be as much to do with LD petulance as it’s flaws, tbh as a neutral observer I find your attempts to “rewrite” the agreement rather distasteful. Having said that, I also realise that you are “A N Other” political party, so I shouldn’t really be to surprised with the attempt at creating a myth.

  • “There is also, of course, the small matter of the current opinion polls: neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems will relish a rush to the ballot box at the moment. A Coalition once held together by radicalism and conviction is now bound together by a pact of mutually assured destruction.”
    Indeed, M.A.D. is the ‘glue’ holding the coalition together as of today. But it seems to me that 2015 will be even worse for Lib Dems.

    ~ The current Lib Dem coalition record, will lose even more votes in 2015.
    ~ The Lib Dems are likely to retain 12 seats or less, in 2015.
    ~ The 2015 election will thus, be between Labour and Tories.
    ~ At the present time Labour have the popular edge.
    ~ As of today, the Tories greatest threat, is a UKIP vote haemorrhage.
    ~ UKIP have suggested they will have all constituencies covered in 2015
    ~ In 2015 UKIP will not win, but will ensure a Tory defeat.
    ~ To win in 2015 the Tories have only one option
    ~ Dump the Lib Dems and steal UKIP’s clothes.
    ~ This will probably, but not inevitably mean Tories dumping Cameron.

    So, do the Lib Dems have any options? Yes they do.

  • I never interpreted the coalition agreement as promising Lords Reform. It states “We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals” rather than “We will bring forward the proposals of a committee”. Perhaps I interpreted it like this due to the Conservative manifesto pledge about building consensus on the issue, since that implies a full debate and a free vote.

  • @John Dunn
    “So, do the Lib Dems have any options? Yes they do.”

    Come on now, don’t dangle a carrot 😀 What do you think the options are?

  • Stephen has missed something here. I’m not sure that the Lib Dems are likely to block boundary changes if Tory rebels block Lords reform, for the simple reason that Lib Dem ministers would also need to vote against the government. Would the coalition’s future seem quite so secure if that were to happen?

  • First you need to ask why you are in power. For its own sake, or to get Lib Dem policies through. If you are decent to your principals, I suspect the latter. But from here on, you have almost no chance of getting any Liberal policies through. Backbench Tories are already barking at Cameron for a coalition split, so the likelihood of Liberal policy support from here to 2015, is pretty much nil.
    But M.A.D. assures that you will stay with the coalition until you wither and die on the vine by 2015.
    Listen to the words of Sun Tzu – The Art of War.

    ~ Split the coalition now, and force a general election.
    ~ Dump Clegg, because he’s a vote loser, and import someone more ‘left’
    ~ Apologise to the public for the error of your LibCon coalition ways.
    ~ Hope that neither Labour or Tories get a majority.
    ~ Hope that the post election arithmetic, gives an option of LibLab coalition.
    ~ Get a better package of LibDem policy agreements with Labour as a condition of coalition.

    I’m afraid it’s die slowly, or jump and gamble.

    J.D. 10/07/12

  • Helen Tedcastle 10th Jul '12 - 4:44pm

    Tony Dawson9th Jul ’12 – 11:03pm

    “The deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement.” (Stephen Tall)

    @ Tony Dawson:’ If only that had been true to date. We might not have been lumbered with the disgraceful NHS fiasco. Which will eventually cost us dearly, thus affecting either the deficit or the quality of services or both..’

    Agree totally Tony but I would also add that as well as stopping Lansley, the Lib Dems should have stopped Gove and his insane policies forEducation from gaining momentum right at the start of the coalition.

    Glad Dan Rogerson condemned the leaked plan for a return to O Levels and CSEs but Gove still has other divisive measures in mind and these proposals,(including Gove’s general approach), must be squashed.

    The appalling behaviour of the Tories over Lords reform gives us the space to say, ‘thus far but no further’ – deficit reduction, the only reason to go into a coalition with the Tories, should not mean carte blanche to take us back to the fifties.

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jul '12 - 4:50pm

    I think we can all look at this and see that it’s further evidence that the coalition might not last to 2015. But we need to be so careful about how it looks to real people (i.e. not LD activists) if we pull out of the coalition on this subject (rather than on NHS reform, additional cuts, snooping, tuition fees). I’m not starting an argument about those policies but trying to remind people that you can only press the ejector seat once and this shouldn’t be the reason. If it was about seriously tackling banks, now that would be a good reason.

  • John Dunn10th Jul ’12 – 4:38pm…………..I’m afraid it’s die slowly, or jump and gamble…………..

    We can’t jump now. As Charles Beaumont says, this isn’t the reason to choose.
    Our best hope is to stop being the ‘yes’ party and try to pick Tory policies apart a bit at a time. We need to gradually distance ourselves and then take a ‘popular’ stand to give Cameron no option but to ‘pull the plug’. We can then try and use the Tuition, NHS, etc. as examples of how we co-operated, against our real feelings, in ‘Coalition’ (if we repeat that mantra often enough,who knows?). Clegg could stand down and ‘Maybe, just maybe’ we might attract enough votes to avoid a complete disaster.
    Am I serious; who knows? Million-to-one shots sometimes win.

  • Malcolm Todd 12th Jul '12 - 12:59pm

    For those who claim (technically correctly) that the CA only committed the government to setting up a committee on HOL reform and not to supporting an actual reform bill, here’s what the agreement actually says on HOC reform:

    We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. We will whip both Parliamentary parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum

    Well, that’s been done now. The retaliation argument refers to refusing to vote for the parliamentary order that will be promulgated some time next year, implementing the specific proposals on boundaries that the boundaries commission presents. I don’t see anything in the CA committing Lib Dems to vote for that, do you?

    –And yes, it’s a silly, picky argument. That’s my point.

  • Giselle Williams 12th Jul '12 - 2:44pm

    Tony Dawson 9th Jul ’12 – 11:03pm “The deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement.” If only that had been true to date. We might not have been lumbered with the disgraceful NHS fiasco. Which will eventually cost us dearly, thus affecting either the deficit or the quality of services or both.
    ———————
    Tony, I would like to agree with your comment. I am a member of the Labour Party (one year) and what has happened in the last two years to the English NHS (where I am being hospitalised regularly at the moment) with the unwanted Bill and unwanted additional expenditure for re-organisation at a time of CUTS and more CUTS is what has lost the Liberal Democrats all my respect. That Clegg is chasing Lords Reform now (which I entirely support but not this Bill which has been put together by amateurs, in my opinion, in a political pursuit) I find utterly reprehensible. The Orange Bookers in your Party are destroying the Liberal Democrats – the third choice available to those not willing to vote for Tory/Labour. That is sad. However, not as sad as the dismantlement of all of the good that had been done by Labour to a creaking NHS (at great cost – but who would pay extra taxes – not Tories?). Your Party’s part in what I consider also as extremely unfair treatment to the vulnerable comes second with me. My hero in your Party is George Potter who seems to understand the sheer cruelty of some of the policies which have been introduced. I wonder if George is still thinking there is democracy in the Liberal Democrat Party when Members at Conference now seem to be getting ignored by the Orange Book leaders in charge. Anyway, you don’t usually post my posts but thought I would give another comment.

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