Farewell, Lords reform?

So. Farewell. Then. Lords Reform. Today's rumours, that Nick Clegg may be about to fold on his proposed elected Upper House, suggest that the coalition is drawing back from a major clash over a bill it probably can't get through the Commons in any event.

Most of the senior Liberal Democrats I talked to as this week's events unfolded maintained an almost zen-like calm abut the whole thing. They regarded it as a Tory problem - giving rise to a subtle attack line, that Cameron's Conservatives were not quite the cuddly reformist bunch they wished to appear.

The official coalition line, as recounted to me by the Leader of the House, Sir George Young, on tonight's edition of Today in Parliament (BBC Radio 4, 11.30pm) is that they hope to defuse their internal opposition with some concessions, and negotiate a deal with Labour to timetable the bill. But neither of these options look very plausible. First, the Tory rebels' central objection is to the whole idea of an elected Upper House, empowered to challenge the ancient supremacy of the Commons.

On that, it seems, most of them will not budge. And so effective has the rebel operation been, that they clearly have the numbers and organisation to tie the government in knots at committee stage.

As for Labour, their support for Lords reform may not extend to helping the coalition out of this particular hole. There are certainly a lot of hard-liners who want to leave Nick 'n Dave to stew in their own juice.

Another factor is that the timetable for getting the bill through is tighter than might be imagined. Suppose the bill cleared the Commons (an optimistic thought) it would still run into sand in the Lords. So the government would then have to use the Parliament Act to over-ride the Lords. This would entail passing the same bill, a second time, in the 2013-14 session, opening up the prospect of a re-run of this week's festivities.

In that event, the bill would go to the Lords again, and once blocked or amended, it would automatically be sent off for Royal Assent, and would become law. So we're looking at a bill which goes onto the statute book in the autumn of 2013 at the earliest.

And here's where things get tight: suppose that the bill is amended in the Commons to require a referendum to endorse the new-look Lords - not improbable since Labour and many Tories want a referendum - the Electoral Commission normally requires a six-month consultation on the terms of a referendum, which would make for a tight timetable, if it was to be held in tandem with the 2014 European elections.

So any delay would make matters very difficult.

All this will have been stirred into Nick Clegg's calculations. And since this will be the first occasion on which one of the coalition parties has failed to deliver the votes for an agreed part of its programme, he will doubtless feel entitled to demand a price for getting David Cameron off the hook. One novel idea might be to demand something the voters actually want, which might attract a bit of support for his party. They've garnered little credit for the income tax cuts they pushed for, or for the pupil premium.

* A commentator asked about the committal motion necessary to send the bill to a committee of the whole house. This is normally a pretty routine procedure, taken on the nod, normally alongside a programme motion. But with this bill almost anything could turn into a procedural Gettysburg. It would be a committee of the whole house, because this is a constitutional issue.

* Another commentator said snap elections are a thing of the past under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Not quite. If the government fell, as a result of a no-confidence motion, there would be a two-week grace period to allow the parties to see whether a new administration could be constructed. If it could not, the Speaker would have to certify that - and then Parliament would be dissolved and an election held. So, to be sure, a prime minister could not wake up one morning and decide to hold an election - but it is far from impossible to engineer such a stalemate, thus causing an election. Indeed, several Conservative MPs devote happy hours to fantasising about that very possibility.

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