13 Jun 2012

Where does the Hunt row leave the coalition?

Senior Lib Dems insist that Nick Clegg did close the door and tell David Cameron some home truths about how Jeremy Hunt should’ve been referred to Alex Allan.

They talk of Nick Clegg feeling “bounced” by the instant acquittal David Cameron delivered after Mr Hunt’s Leveson appearance and of David Cameron not observing the usual courtesies (ie – consulting Nick Clegg) before deciding there should be no referral to Alex Allan.

Some Lib Dem backbenchers talk of how there was a party management operation. Nick Clegg simply rode to the front of the rebellion that was taking shape, toned it down to an abstention, then tried to take the credit for a high moral stand.

Not true, senior Lib Dems say.

Nick Clegg was truly banging on about this one behind the scenes. He sees it as a one-off matter that doesn’t affect the Coalition agreement implementation but inevitably will inform his future judgements and tactics with Mr Cameron.

And there’s a big judgement call coming down the tracks.

Next week’s Cabinet may hear that the Lords reform bill is to be unveiled the week after. Two weeks after that, in the week beginning 9th July, that last full week of Parliament, we should get the second reading and, critically, the programme motion. That’s the vote on whether the process will be tightly controlled or let off the leash – to run amok like a mad truffling pig through a Japanese garden.

If Lib Dems were contemplating launching a charm offensive to get their way on Lords reform, Tories say, this wasn’t the way to do it.

Tories mutter of hardening resistance to the Lords reforms, and determination to kill it at the first opportunity. There are, incidentally, mutterings that the Lib Dems have given way on elected Lords constituency sizes and voting systems – but that’s all pretty academic of the Tory backbenchers are determined to kill the whole thing off.

And as if Lords reform isn’t toxic enough, we have a potential re-run of December’s EU summit and the UK veto coming into view.

Number 10 sources say if Europe wants a banking union, the UK will ask for their (rejected) December demands, and even more besides by way of guarantees. EU sources say there’s now even more resistance to such demands amongst EU member states than there was last December. How would Nick Clegg position himself if such a stand-off happened?

Footnote from the debate: There was quite a row in the Commons in the Jeremy Hunt debate. Labour’s Chris Bryant accused Mr Hunt of lying and Jeremy Hunt asked the Speaker to rule that out of order as unparliamentary language. The Speaker, who’d obviously seen this one might come his way, said he’d consulted his team and as the Labour motion accused Mr Hunt of misleading parliament it wasn’t unparliamentary because it was relevant to the motion. Jeremy Hunt pleaded with the Speaker to reconsider on the grounds that he was being accused of (consciously) lying rather than (inadvertently) misleading. Despite a few attempts and a similar plea from Sir George Young, the Speaker refused.

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