The 15 words that mean the Coalition won’t fall, no matter what happens to Lords reform

by Stephen Tall on July 9, 2012

There’s a very simple reason why — even if enough Tory MPs inflict the Coalition’s first defeat on a key plank of the Coalition Agreement which appeared in their last three manifestos — the Government will not fall tomorrow. It’s these 15 words from the May 2010 Programme for Government:

The deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement.

There is also, of course, the small matter of the current opinion polls: neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems will relish a rush to the ballot box at the moment. A Coalition once held together by radicalism and conviction is now bound together by a pact of mutually assured destruction.

The inconsistencies in Tory backbenchers’ position on Lords reform are legion. I won’t unpick them here, as Nick Thornsby has already highlighted six examples on his blog here.

What the Lords fracas reveals about the Tories’ mood

More interesting than trying to pick through the rubble of Tory excuses is to try and understand why a policy on which the two Coalition parties officially agree should be showing up so clearly David Cameron’s inability to lead his party.

First, let’s repeat — as it still appears to be news to many Tory MPs — the Conservative manifestos in 2001, 2005 and 2010 all committed the party to reform. However, in reality what this means is that the Tory leadership decided to back Lords reform: most MPs and party members are resistant to change. Why? Well, the clue’s in the party’s name. And as the Conservative party isn’t a democratic organisation in which the membership gets to determine policy, inevitably many of their MPs feel disenfranchised. I sympathise with them. In fact, I agree with them: it must be terrible to have their policies decided in such an wholly unaccountable and undemocratic way…

Secondly, what’s also starting to emerge is the Tory backbenches’ frustration with David Cameron not only failing to win the last election, but also giving every appearance of looking like the Tories won’t win the next one either. Many Tory MPs now feel in hindsight ‘bounced’ by their leadership into accepting a Coalition they increasingly resent, arguing (almost certainly correctly) that if the Tories had formed a minority government in May 2010 and then called a second election in autumn 2010 on a pledge to ‘sort out the economy’ they would now have a majority of their own. David Cameron’s eagerness to make his “big, open and comprehensive offer” to the Lib Dems is seen as (another) major strategic error.

So we have a policy many Tory MPs feel has been imposed on them, backed by a Government many Tory MPs feel has been imposed on them. It’s safe to say Tory MPs feel more than a bit imposed on.

Tory MPs champion a Pyrrhic victory

As so often when emotions run high, the Tories are failing to see the opportunity democratic reform actually presents them with. As I wrote back in April:

There is an odd lack of self-confidence within the Tory party. For all their talk of the wish to build a Conservative majority at the next election, they seem perversely unwilling to try and do so by persuading a majority of the public to back conservatism at the ballot box. I suppose I should be grateful the Tories haven’t yet grasped that their best hope of keeping Britain conservative is to offer the people true democracy. This country is, I believe, instinctively a small-c conservative nation, culturally and economically. It’s a painful realisation for a liberal.

Many of the policies the Tories champion — deep Euroscepticism, anti-immigration, welfare-crackdowns — probably command majority support among the population. If the Tories were more pluralist and less partisan they would realise they could build a right-wing coalition much more easily if they got behind democratic reform than by continuing to oppose it in the hope their party might once again win an outright majority. Thankfully they’re too blinded by impotent fury to realise they’re cutting off their noses [/mixed metaphor].

The reality is that if they veto the Coalition Agreement’s promise of Lords reform, the Lib Dems are likely to veto the Coalition Agreement’s promise of constituency boundary changes. As a democrat, I think that would be quite wrong: equalising constituency boundaries is another vital reform. But surely no-one will be surprised if Lib Dem MPs who have never yet voted down a Coalition Agreement measure cock a snook at the Tories?

If they do, and Lords reform and the boundary review are both stalemated, it’ll be a double whammy for the Tories. They’ll stand to lose up to 20 ‘easy’ gains at the next election AND make it much easier for incumbent Lib Dem MPs to defend their patches. As I noted last month reporting Peter Kellner’s take on the Lib Dem position:

At its most apocalyptic, the next election has the potential to become a ‘perfect storm’ for the Lib Dems: a first-past-the-post election fought against the backdrop of having been part of an unpopular government at a time of massive economic fragility on new and enlarged constituencies.

Defeating Lords reform might be seen as a victory by Tory backbenchers. If it is, it’s their most Pyrrhic victory to date.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.