Tory backbenchers probably thought that when they ganged together to thwart attempts to make the Lords mostly elected last year, they had got rid of what they saw as a “constitutional threat” for the foreseeable future.
But conversations I have had in recent days with senior Liberal Democrats suggest there is a scenario under which the plans could be resurrected.
Officials close to Nick Clegg have told me that if there was a hung parliament at the next election and a deal with the Conservatives was the most likely outcome, this would give them an opening to insist that the plans were put back on the table.
A pearl from Gary Gibbon’s blog:
Deputy Leader Simon Hughes is coming in for particular stick from colleagues. “He’s had more positions than the Kama Sutra on this”, one fellow Lib Dem MP said. “He’s not rubber, he’s putty.”**
Very well put. It’s a reminder that most of the refusniks on the Lib Dem side are far from untainted. They may be sticking to their election campaign pledge, but they are breaking their word to abide by the coalition agreement. As one of the “rebels” told me, “we should have done more earlier, we have blood on our hands too”.
Remember that no MP voted against the coalition agreement and only Charlie Kennedy abstained. The Lib Dem special conference, which included some 2,000 delegates, was almost North Korean in its support. No delegate stood up and questioned whether an abstention was enough to protect Lib Dem honour on tuition fees. And no more than a dozen activists actually voted against the full deal.
These arguments aren’t really washing with the rebel MPs though. The mood on the Lib Dem backbenches is to vote no rather than abstain. As Gibbon notes, they can all do the maths and see that the proposals will almost certainly go through. And who would want to explain to voters the reasons for them sitting on the fence?
One additional problem for Clegg is that the whips have lost some of their best arguments. With all the ministers backing Clegg, they can’t even dangle the prospect of a promotion in front of backbenchers who stay loyal.
It is hard to know sometimes whether Simon Hughes is playing a fiendishly complex strategic game in order to leverage anti-Tory forces within his own Liberal Democrat party and thus enhance his own reputation. Or whether he just can’t resist saying controversial things.
So it was with the VAT rise. Tuition fees. And with council housing. And now Mr Hughes (deputy leader the Lib Dems) is insisting that there will be no electoral pact between his party and the Tories come the next general election. (This is in contrast to Tories such as backbencher Mark Field, who has proposed a non-aggression agreement).
I only ask because it was Hughes who first gave a hint two weeks ago that there might be a Lib Dem amendment to the finance bill – only to then retract. A couple of days later Andrew George put forward such an amendment, although in the end only Bob Russell and Mike Hancock voted against their own coalition.*
Now the Lib Dem deputy leader has been on the Politics Show raising questions about the drastic cuts to the Building Schools for the Future programme.