Nick Clegg yesterday exacted the price his ministers and advisers had long warned would be paid for the Tories scuppering Lord reform: the Lib Dem leader in turn killed off the boundary changes, which are important to his coalition partners’ chances of a 2015 majority.
Most Westminster watchers saw it for what it was: a piece of tit-for-tat politics that was not particularly edifying, but probably important for the Lib Dems to show they were willing to use their muscle to get what they want.
Clegg attempted to appeal to principle when giving his rationale for the move yesterday. He said:
Lords reform and boundaries are two, separate parliamentary bills but they are both part of a package of overall political reform. Delivering one but not the other would create an imbalance – not just in the Coalition Agreement, but also in our political system.
Lords reform leads to a smaller, more legitimate House of Lords. Boundary changes lead to a smaller House of Commons, by cutting the number of MPs. If you cut the number of MPs without enhancing the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Lords all you have done is weaken parliament as a whole, strengthen the executive and its overmighty government that wins.
The problem is, his argument is undermined, by something he said back in April. Testifying in front of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the deputy prime minister had the following conversation with Eleanor Laing, the Tory MP (emphasis mine):
EL: It is now being reported that the Liberal Democrat party, as part of the coalition, will not continue to support the boundaries legislation unless House of Lords reform is passed in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Is that the case?
NC: How can I put it? It just does not work like that. There is no sort of “You do this. I’ll do that. You do this. I’ll do that”. One just has to look at each of these things on their own merits and in their own terms….
I have said that I do not recognise this idea that there are links between one bit of what is actually, as I have described earlier, quite a long list of constitutional political changes we are making, and another. We are trying to press forward on all of them…
EL: … Can we take it then that the further progress of the boundaries reform legislation is not dependant for its support by your part of the coalition upon the-
NC: There is no formal link between the two. I will tell you where I accept maybe some suspicions-if that is not too strong a word-have been provoked. I have been asked in the House of Commons a number of times about, “Why you are wasting your time?” I have to be blunt, this is often asked by members of the Conservative party, “Why are you wasting your time pushing forward with House of Lords reform?” I then made a rhetorical response, in which I said, “In exactly the same way that I assume people who defend the boundary review, which is not the top of the electorate’s concerns by any stretch of the imagination, would justify they are wasting their time on that”…
EL: … Is it the case that the reports that your party’s support for further progress on boundaries legislation is dependent upon progress on House of Lords reform legislation are wrong?
NC: Of course, there is no reliance on our support for a Coalition Agreement commitment for progress on unrelated or other significant parallel constitutional formations. I have said that. There is no link; of course, there is no link.
The problem for Clegg is that if he tries to justify ending boundary changes on a point of principle, that would have been as much the case in April as it is now: nothing has changed to change the nature of the debate. Besides no one believes his principled argument – he might as well stop trying to make it.