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Lib Dem dreams, ripped at the seams?

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

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

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."