As the mutiny on the Tory backbenches over the prospect of Lords reform shows no sign of abating, elements within the Liberal Democrats seize upon the unrest.
As the Observer this weekend reported mounting anger within the ranks of the Conservative Party over the prime minister’s refusal to approve a referendum on House of Lords reform, one Welsh MP has made clear his support for such a vote.
With Parliament’s Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill publishing its report today, Montgomeryshire MP Glyn Davies, parliamentary aide to the Welsh secretary Cheryl Gillian, yesterday told Radio Wales’s Sunday Supplement programme that:
“I think we should be prepared to go forward with [the proposals for change].
“Personally, I’d be very committed to there being a referendum.
“It’s a huge change in the way we govern Britain, not just the House of Lords, it’s about how we run the House of Commons as well.
“I don’t think we should go forward with that without a referendum at the least.“
The call from an MP on the lowest rung of the government ladder comes as Robert Watts reported in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph that Nick Clegg, attempting to head off Conservative backbenchers’ calls for a referendum, is now prepared to compromise over his proposals.
This would involve increasing the size of a reformed upper house from 300 to 45, with the number appointed increasing from 60 to 90. Over the weekend, these numbers were expected to be in line with today’s Joint Committee report.
• Tories threaten to ignore their mandate on Lords reform 20 Apr 2012
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Nonetheless, while Clegg yesterday reiterated his belief in an interview with Andrew Neil on the Sunday Politics that a referendum wasn’t needed, it was noticeable that he didn’t explicitly rule one out either.
Meanwhile, the maverick Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, writing on Conservative Home, accused Downing Street of bordering on ‘lies’ over the Conservative manifesto promises on Lords reform. Despite Ben Phillips’s analysis on Left Foot Forward of the Tories’ pledges made prior to the 2010 election, Dorries (ed: spelling, grammar and typography all as in the original) wrote:
“Already, blatant spin verging on outright lies have poured from No10 by announcing that Lords Reform was in our manifesto and the Coalition agreement. It absolutely was not, as Paul Goodman makes clear, HERE.
“Liberal Democrat Lord Oakeshott, having heard about the ’22 meeting, took to the airwaves yesterday [Friday] stamping his chuildish feet and announcing that Conservative MPs should “grow up”. Yes, Lord Oakeshott of all people really told us to be mature. He then embarked upon the same co-ordinated spin as No 10.
“It is a sad day when both the office of No10 and Lord Oakeshott resort to lies in order to attempt to hoodwink the media and the public at large in order to satisfy their own short term personal objectives.
“Cross party delegations of some of the most senior and influential peers have spoken to Cameron and Osborne, in an attempt to de-rail this madness, to no effect.
“Party donors will be next and it is guaranteed their own particular threat will be to no longer donate to the party.
“MPs are threatening to rebel on the biggest scale yet and the Labour party, who see their poll rating increase just as ours continues to decline, are rubbing their hands in glee as they spot a crack in the wall over an issue they – the party with an ingrained opposition to the Lords – never dared to put centre stage.
“The most interesting aspect of all of this is that what happened in the 1922 was a surreal situation, given that many of the 2010 intake are uber loyal and would rather have their finger nails removed, without anaesthetic, than do anything to displease the party leadership.”
Firing a semi-coherent warning shot to Cameron and Osborne, Dorries concludes:
“Cameron and Osborne have two very simple choices going forward. I say both because it is impossible to imagine Cameron taking any major policy decision without Osborne. If they make the wrong one, it could very well be the beginning of Cameron’s own personal downfall.
“He needs to listen to the message he was given at the 1922 loud and clear and support the Conservative Party and his own MPs. If he chooses not to, if he decides to support the Liberal Democrats in their own desperate pursuit of power and prominence.
“If he places his own desire to remain in No10 for a few more years over the long term future of the party, it is almost certain Cameron will not lead the Conservative Party into the next election.
“Osborne is already toast. Conversation in the tea rooms has already moved onto who will be next? The answer is no longer, ever, Osborne.”
The Tories remain divided within themselves, and mostly at odds with their coalition partners. Yet within the Liberal Democrat ranks too, cracks are emerging in their pet project of reform. Last week, Nick Clegg attempted to rule out any suggestion of Lib Dem support for constituency boundary changes in return for the Conservatives supporting Lords reform.
This weekend, however, Tim Farron was less keen to dismiss such a trade-off. Speaking on Saturday to the Independent, he observed:
“The Conservatives need to remember that if they don’t keep their part of the bargain then, of course, boundary change should not happen.
“If Mr Cameron wants [the changes], the whole set of constitutional reforms set out in the Coalition Agreement need to be implemented.
“You can’t have a situation where you enact the parts that you like and ignore the rest.”
With the coalition parties seemingly at war both between and within themselves, the omnishambles that now defines this government looks set to get worse. As Andrew Rawnsley warned over the weekend:
“If the mass of voters come to a settled verdict that this administration is a divided, incompetent, querulous mess, it is only one more step for them to conclude that this is the inevitable result of coalition government, a conclusion that will be disastrous for the Lib Dems’ long-term ambition to make coalition a norm rather than an exception in British politics.
“So it is in the interests of both leaders to try to steady the boat. The mooter question is whether it is in their power. The latest eruption of angry Tory backbench dissent, this time over Mr Clegg’s plans for reform of the House of Lords, does not suggest that it will be at all easy.”