UK Politics

More to come?

  • 16 January 2013
  • From the section UK Politics
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As predicted, the Lords vote to block boundary changes for Commons seats wasn't even close.

An alliance of Labour and Lib Dem peers, bolstered by a few crossbenchers, easily outvoted the Conservatives and their crossbench supporters and two bishops - and pushed through a clause delaying the next report of the Boundary Commission until 2018.

Since the proposed new boundaries would have been pretty helpful to the Conservative cause at the next election, this is a serious blow to David Cameron and his party. And Conservative peers spent quite a while during the debate quoting Nick Clegg's outspoken support for the measure he now opposes.

The atmosphere was distinctly sour, even though the Lib Dems tried to keep a lid on things by minimising the number of their peers in the chamber to absorb Tory broadsides.

To the Tories, this is a betrayal of both the Coalition agreement and the avowed principles of the Lib Dems themselves. As former Welsh Secretary Lord Crickhowell put it, they are requiring the next election to be fought on constituency boundaries they have condemned as unfair. The Lib Dem answer is that, having run a £2m campaign in the AV referendum to accuse Nick Clegg of betrayal for doing a deal with, er, the Conservative Party, and having taken great pleasure in defeating his proposal for Lords reform, the Tories had to expect a bit of retaliation - they should appreciate that politics is a contact sport and stop whining.

It hardly suggests that the spirit of the Rose Garden has returned, following the recent Coalition relaunch.

Reverse possible?

So what happens now? I think it is very unlikely that the Conservative side of the government will be able to reverse the Lords vote in the Commons, which would put peers in the awkward position of having to defy the elected house on an issue about elections. To reverse the vote, the Conservatives would have to rope in almost every non-Labour or Lib Dem MP, and I don't think the Scottish or Welsh nationalists, or many of the Northern Ireland parties are going to play ball. I hear they at least contemplated trying something while four Labour seats were vacant, before the last round of by-elections, but probably decided they risked being too clever for their own good.

So other forms of revenge are now contemplated, at least on the backbenches. Delegations of backbenchers have been lobbying the PM with various schemes for a Euro-referendum of some kind, before the next election (Lib Dem policy was to hold an in-out vote, if you remember) and they wouldn't mind putting the Lib Dems and Labour in the position of blocking it… we shall have to see.

Much depends on David Cameron's forthcoming euro-speech, and aside from any policy substance, his troops would quite like to see him take a few swipes at his Coalition partners.

Perhaps there shouldn't be, but I suspect there will be at least a subconscious linkage in the minds of many in the Conservative ranks to the forthcoming vote on gay marriage (pencilled in for 5 February, I gather) where it looks as if Cameroon loyalists and Lib Dems (and most Labour MPs) will be pitted against a very large number of Tory backbenchers. The likely outcome of that vote could sour things still further. The troops are not happy now - they may be seething after that.

* For the full result of that Lords vote, see the latest analysis by the Constitution Unit. They raise the interesting question of how exactly it should be described. It can't be seen as a government defeat, since the two parts of the government voted in opposite lobbies - so at the moment they're calling it the first "Coalition Split Vote". I wonder how many more there will be.

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