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Cameron’s biggest threat is his MPs’ urge to break free from Clegg

Tory MPs crave an invigorating burst of authentic Conservative ideology.

It says something not very flattering about British democracy that a majority of MPs can endorse the idea of an elected House of Lords – and yet their votes could stand as the epitaph of reform.

It is possible that Nick Clegg’s ambitions for a new upper chamber will be realised – but not likely. The Commons backed the Liberal Democrat leader’s plan by a margin of 338 votes, yet thanks to a baroque parliamentary twist, the real victory went to a 91-strong band of Conservative rebels in a vote that wasn’t even held.

The Tory naysayers refused to support a government motion to impose a timetable to railroad the reform into law. The motion was withdrawn, in effect steering Clegg’s plans into a legislative siding. Officially, this is a  “pause” during which David Cameron will bring round some of the dissenters in his ranks before a renewed effort to legislate in the autumn. Unofficially, a senior figure in the government describes Lords reform as “a total car wreck”.

Some of the rebels might be cajoled or bullied into line; a hard core is implacable. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, has shown little appetite and still less capacity to enforce his writ. In the run-up to the aborted vote, the Lib Dems grew increasingly frustrated with what they saw as a lackadaisical whipping operation by their coalition partners. Clegg believed he had an unflinching commitment from Cameron to deliver the requisite votes, forgetting that the Prime Minister always flinches at threats from his back benches.

Absolute fury

The mood in Clegg’s office is said by a senior source to be one of “absolute fury” at such flakiness. For the Lib Dems the issue is not just the scuttling of a flagship policy; it is the injustice of Conservative MPs being excused from the obligation to swallow unpalatable measures when the junior coalition party has overdosed on bitter policy pills – tuition fees, welfare cuts, NHS reform. As one senior Lib Dem puts it: “We’ve sucked up enough shit. It’s time they sucked up some shit.”

But even those Conservatives who were once sympathetic towards the sacrifices made by their governing partners have felt the solidarity drain away. A turning point was reached with the Lib Dems’ decision in June to abstain when Labour voted in parliament to demand an investigation into unseemly relations between the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and Rupert Murdoch’s News International. That breach of a governing esprit de corps was taken as licence to ignore future appeals for unity. Hints from senior Lib Dems that a rejection of Lords reform would trigger retribution against Tory policy had the predictable effect of galvanising the rebellion.

Most Tories are persuaded of the need for a more democratic upper chamber. They are not persuaded of the need to create one so that miserable Lib Dems can feel compensated for past humiliations. Still less are they ready to accept one designed – so they see it – as an ark for the purpose of carrying Clegg’s people to senatorial safety when electoral flood waters threaten to sweep them out of the Commons. Conservative objections to the plan on offer are thus wrapped up in animosity towards the man offering it. As one prominent Tory MP put it: “I would gladly vote for reform, just not a rubbish Clegg reform.”

Beneath this edifice of resentment against the Lib Dems lie foundations of anger at Cameron’s inability to win a majority at the last election – saddling the party with coalition in the first place – and lack of confidence in the Conservative leader’s strategy for doing any better next time.

Lagging in opinion polls, presiding over economic stagnation, with no imminent prospect of recovery from either affliction, Cameron’s MPs crave an invigorating burst of authentic Conservative ideology. There is no single platform to describe what that means but the standard components are an assault on regulations that are presumed to be stifling enterprise, tax cuts, a tougher line on immigration and a more ambitious dismantling of the welfare state. The commonly identified enemies of that agenda are the unholy trinity of Brussels, the civil service and Clegg. Cameron is suspected of caving in to all three.

Downing Street is alert to Tory impatience and tries to placate it. That is what lay behind a speech on 25 June in which the Prime Minister explained how a future Conservative administration would be more aggressive in cutting benefits. Two days later George Osborne bowed to demands from the right of the party and abandoned a planned rise in fuel duty. Those devices were meant, in part, to buy Cameron some goodwill on the back benches, making it easier to persuade MPs to back Lords reform.

No shackles

The clumsiness and ineffectiveness of such manoeuvres illustrate quite how weak the Prime Minister is at reading the mood among his MPs, especially those new to parliament at the last election. A distinguishing feature of the campaign against Lords reform was the support – tacit and explicit – it enjoyed among ambitious members of the 2010 cohort. The operation was run from the office of one such newbie: the Hereford MP, Jesse Norman, who is, by reputation, more erudite pamphleteer than rabble-rouser. To Cameron’s immense consternation, Norman is said by MPs to have been shrewder in his reading of the party and defter in his troop mobilisation than the government whips. It was less like a rebellion than a movement for the emancipation of Conservatism from the shackles of Cleggery.

That doesn’t mean the coalition is poised to fall. Lords reform could yet be salvaged. Even if it dies, Clegg and Cameron could never face the country to say the partnership they formed to deal with an economic emergency must be dissolved because they fell out over a tweak to the constitution.

Both men like being in government and depend on each other to stay there. But that dynamic has become the engine driving resentment in their parties. It can only make them weaker over time. The Lib Dems, at least, know they cannot govern alone. The Tories can’t, either. The danger for Cameron is that they look increasingly desperate to try.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Crisis