9 May 2012

“Careworn evangelists” prepare to trade

I remember being struck after the Dec 2011 EU veto how Lib Dem MPs were not any more the visceral Europhiles we’d all once known. They’d rubbed up against the voters a few too many times to think that message had a welcome (some Lib Dem peers weren’t quite so compromising, their politics forged in an earlier age, by battles over the EU).


Similarly, you now find Lib Dem MPs are more pragmatic than you might expect about dumping plans for an elected House of Lords. I spoke to one Lib Dem senior minister whose eyes blazed with fervour about an elected Lords this time last year, just after the AV referendum, but who now shrugs his shoulders at the prospect. They are “careworn evangelists”, one other Lib Dem minister said.

On the BBC State Opening programme, Lord Ashdown spoke about “a negotation going on behind the scenes” on Lords reform, and Ming Campbell on the same programme, said there was clearly “room for negotiation.”

It is not a negotiation the Coalition particularly wants to advertise or conduct in public. The way life in the Coalition works, the Lib Dems’ negotiating strength requires the high command to deny it could even contemplate negotiating away such a treasured heirloom as an elected Lords. The Lib Dems have got to look like they’re wedded to Lords reform to get something juicy in return.

Boundary review delay is one plausible trade-off, and a favourite amongst some senior Lib Dems. Tory whips have been telling Tory MPs overnight that the PM wouldn’t budge on making sure the changes were introduced ahead of 2015. They were reacting to Tory MPs and bloggers saying that delaying the Boundary changes risked throwing away any chance of the Tories getting an outright majority in 2015.

For some Lib Dems, the draft Communications Data Bill could be part of a Lords reform climbdown trade-off. As I mentioned yesterday, some senior Lib Dems think party funding changes as a trade-off would risk looking rather illiberal if they targetted Labour’s trade union funding, but they are “possible” components of a deal.

But this is a live, top-level, on-going negotiation not resolved. I get the impression that Nick Clegg has not entirely worked out what he would demand/accept in return for dropping Lords reform. Between them, the PM and the Deputy PM have so far only negotiated a holding position: Parliament should be able to do more than one thing at a time, an elected Lords has been in all the party manifestos … but all talk of using the Parliament Act and forcing it through is dropped.

I noticed in the Commons that David Cameron also repeated a comment from a week ago, that Lords reform is “only going to proceed if (all the main) parties work together.” Fat chance. I also noticed Ken Clarke nodding off.

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