Lib Dem dreams, ripped at the seams?

Clegg's and Cameron's MPs are singing very different songs about the prospects for Lords reform

Coalition relations have suddenly taken a turn from Grease. Yes, that Grease. The musical. Everyone in cabinet was at the same meeting yesterday. Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are signed up to the same coalition agreement and the government has now signed off on the same plan for redesigning Parliament’s upper chamber. And yet the tunes coming out of the Tory and Lib Dem camps are so very different. It reminds me of the Thunderbirds and the Pink Ladies pumping Danny and Sandy for the details of their summer fling. Same story; utterly incompatible interpretation. (“Saved Clegg’s life, he nearly drowned.”/ “Cameron showed off, splashing around.”)

Lib Dems are bullish, quite remarkably so in fact. The message from Clegg HQ is that Lords reform will definitely happen and that Cameron will get enough of his MPs to vote for it. I am told that one of the most energetic speakers in favour of delivering the plan at yesterday’s cabinet session was George Osborne. Senior Lib Dems insist they have effectively transmitted the seriousness of their intentions to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, that they aren’t mucking around, that this thing has to be done and that Tory MPs can bloody well vote for it. “We’ve held our noses and our breath to walk through the lobbies for them enough times,” says one senior Lib Dem source.  

No one thinks it will be easy for Cameron to deliver Conservative votes for Clegg. One explanation for this week’s speech outlining a new, tougher Tory line on welfare – and perhaps for the U-turn on fuel duty rises yesterday – is that  the party leadership needs to earn some brownie points with the right before it starts whipping them behind hated Cleggite initiatives. The burst of True Blue gunfire, says one Lib Dem, is “air cover” for the impending retreat on Lords reform.

They wish. The view among Conservative MPs seems to be that Lords reform remains negotiable. I have yet to detect much sign of rebels laying down their arms and there are reports of Tories being told their career prospects will not be harmed if they decide they cannot vote with the government. The official line is very much that a vote will be whipped and that the usual ministerial duties therefore apply (in other words, anyone on the government payroll would have to resign if they wanted to rebel)*. There is some speculation too that one reason Cameron continues to postpone his long-awaited reshuffle is that he needs the prospect of promotion as an incentive to temper sedition. Since MPs who are passed over and ministers who are sacked will be a source of mischief, Cameron would rather wait until Lords reform battles are fought before creating a mini-cohort of resentful also-rans. So the slightly over-wrought theorising goes, anyway.

Cameron might simply have under-estimated how passionately his MPs feel about sabotaging Clegg’s ambitions. Many sincerely hate the specific proposals on offer for Lords reform. Many more want revenge for slights, offences and past policy sacrifices. There is particular fury over Lib Dem abstention on a Labour motion targeting Jeremy Hunt earlier this month. Why, ask Tory MPs, should such disloyalty to a governing partner not be repaid in kind? One Conservative minister warns that Cameron and Osborne “have no idea what goes on in the party.”

So perhaps Clegg and friends are justified in thinking they have all the assurances they need that Cameron is on side. Perhaps Cameron has made those very assurances. It might just also be the case that the Prime Minister can’t deliver on them.  

*Update: This line has now been tightened in a briefing from the PM's spokesman. There are no "nods and winks" apparently. And anyone defying the whips will "be making an interesting career move."

The message from Clegg HQ is that Lords reform will definitely happen. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.