For Cameron and Clegg, there is still no alternative to the coalition

The PM and his deputy are more dependent on each other than ever.

The rumours are confirmed. House of Lords reform – at least the variant of it proposed by Nick Clegg – is dead. In retaliation, the Liberal Democrats will not support Conservative plans to change the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies, reducing the overall number of seats (to the detriment of the junior coalition party).

This development seemed inevitable from the moment last month when a decision was taken not to force the House of Commons to vote on a "timetable motion" ensuring Clegg’s reforms safe passage through parliament. At that point, David Cameron asked for more time to persuade rebels on his own side to back the plan. Anyone familiar with the mood on the Tory backbenches could have predicted they were not up for persuasion. Labour indicated clearly then too that the limit of their support had been reached – backing the bill in theory, but not the parliamentary means to rush it through. Game over.

That it has taken weeks for the last rites to be read is testimony to how much determination there remains at the very top to maintain the impression that coalition is a functional form of government. Even in his statement today, Clegg presented the move as a contractual renegotiation – part of the technical evolution of a two-party alliance in the event that the terms of agreement are breached – rather than a disorderly tit-for-tat exchange of blows.

He referred at length to what he sees as Labour’s failure to compromise, while glossing over, it seemed to me, the more substantial failure of the Prime Minister to deliver on the commitment he had made. Privately, senior Lib Dems blame Cameron for capitulating to his backbenchers and for generally taking a far too cavalier attitude to what is meant to be – as Team Clegg likes to put it – "the sacred text" of the coalition agreement.

The Tory rejoinder is that the very same text commits the Lib Dems to boundary changes and not just on condition of getting a reformed House of Lords. This hermeneutic dispute can go on forever and is never very edifying. Its very tone, quibbling over commas and interpretations like medieval monks, reinforces the sense of a government lacking broad intellectual and ideological consistency. The reliance on textual analysis to decide which party gets what out of the deal does not exactly indicate strategic clarity.

From speaking to people in Number 10 and the Deputy Prime Minister’s office today I get the impression that both sides are very alert to the danger of appearing adrift and at the mercy of political currents beyond their control – whether it is angry Tory backbenchers thinking they can boss Cameron about or a media mood that starts to write off the coalition and speculate endlessly about when and how it will end.

Hence the decision to get this piece of grim news out now, in the middle of the summer recess, when most eyes are on the Olympics. Both coalition parties are determined to use the autumn season as an opportunity for political re-launch and need to put this ugly episode behind them.

That won’t be so easy. For Clegg, the big problem now is the persistence of questions about what, if not Lords reform, he can hold up as an exclusively Lib Dem trophy snatched from reluctant Tories. (Yes, the raising of the income tax threshold and pupil premium are Clegg’s policies, but Conservatives like them too. The emblematic value of Lords Reform – the thing that would have made it cathartic for Lib Dems -  is that it was something Tory MPs would have to vote for against their will, just as the junior coalition party held its collective nose and marched through the lobbies for tuition fees and NHS reform.)

The resilience of the Lib Dems and their public loyalty to Clegg has been remarkable given the pounding they have taken in opinion polls. But this is the first issue where I sense large numbers, including some ministers, really questioning the big strategic choices that their leader has made in coalition. Why, they ask, did he pick such a battle over an issue too obscure and technical to do the party favours as a badge of political identity in the country? And could he not have foreseen that he would lose?

The climbdown does Cameron no favours either. It means, in essence, that a high-profile part of the government agenda, one that was in the Queen’s Speech and for which legislative time had been allotted, has been vetoed by backbench MPs. Precedent suggests they will be emboldened by that victory. Now more than ever, Cameron faces a challenge to prove that he is leading rather than following his party.

In the past, whenever the Prime Minister has been forced to choose between loyalty to his partnership with Clegg and acceding to the demands of his angry backbenchers, he has chosen the latter. Senior Lib Dems are now saying Cameron must accept that his serial flakiness has got him nowhere and has only weakened his authority. It is time, they say, to recognise that his political future depends on making coalition work and not undermining it when he is too chicken to take on his party.

Many Tories, meanwhile, are saying that Cameron has called Clegg’s bluff. The boundary changes are a serious tactical loss for Number 10 (unmourned by many Conservative MPs, it must be said) but not the kind of defeat on policy that registers with the country as a great humiliation. It is not a point of political honour the way Lords reform was for Clegg. The reality, as one Downing Street aide put it to me this morning, is that the Lib Dems are in no shape to fight an election and must, for the sake of their own credibility, stick with the Conservative line on the economy - the issue that counts more than any other. They have nowhere to go.

That emphatically does not mean the coalition is dissolving. Reports over the weekend that senior Tories were seriously plotting how to govern without the Lib Dems are dismissed by a Downing Street source as "nonsense." Cameron is no less dependent on Clegg’s MPs than he was in 2010. If anything, he needs them all the more now that a small but noisy band of his own MPs have decided to behave as if they were in opposition.

That is the curious paradox of today’s events. The acknowledgement of a breach of the coalition agreement and the announcement of a technical retaliation are clear reminders of how brittle the whole project is. And yet, as Clegg and Cameron are the biggest individual losers, their dependence on one another to keep the show on the road is increased. Today’s news is hardly an affirmation of coalition but it is a stark reminder that, for the Prime Minister and his Deputy, there really is no alternative.

Cameron is no less dependent on Clegg’s MPs than he was in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty
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Labour's unstoppable force meets its immovable object

Team Corbyn are confident. But so are their opponents.

If you come at the king, you best not miss. And boy, have they come at him: over 40 resignations from the opposition frontbench and a motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership that both loyalists and rebels expect to pass easily.

What happens next? The ruling executive of Momentum, the organising force behind Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters in the party grassroots, met Corbyn in his office late last night. It would be overstating it to say that the mood was jubilant but Corbyn and his allies are confident of victory in the struggle for supremacy. “Game on,” texted one senior figure. “He won’t stand down,” another told me, “He feels he owes it to the membership to let them decide.”

Within Team Corbyn, they remain convinced that the shadow cabinet “are going to war without an army”, in the words of one insider. Others are already looking forward to the policy conference of Labour and Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, where there is a chance the union may adopt a policy of supporting mandatory reselection of Labour MPs.

Are they right? Having called and spoken to party members, it is certainly clear that Corbyn’s standing among the membership is not quite as high as it once was.

But members are unclear what they want next – several mentioned Keir Starmer, although my instinct that is largely because, as one member conceded, he is still very much a “blank slate” on which the hopes of the party’s electorate can be projected. What most want is someone who would retain much of the politics but with greater competence – the Vice News documentary seems to have done more damage than the referendum on the whole – and without the thirty years in politics for the right-wing press to pick over. The difficulty is that it is hard to see a politician in the parliamentary Labour party answering to that description or even close to it. While for the rebels, finding a winner is no longer the priority, surviving a snap election in October is, loyalists in the PLP and the grassroots are either unconvinced that the result will be heavy defeat, or unconvinced that any of the replacements would do better.

The difficulty for Corbyn’s critics is, rather like Labour under Ed Miliband, although they might be the repository for people’s irritation and uncertainty, there are few making a positive choice to vote for any of the available candidates. My instinct is, if Corbyn is on the ballot, the polls might show a tighter picture, he might have a tougher time on the campaign trail that he did last time, and he might have a closer fight as far as constituency nominations were concerned, but he would ultimately win, and win easily.

That’s before you get into Momentum’s ability to expand the electorate further.  Although appearing at last night’s rally was criticised by some journalists and cost Corbyn’s team at least one frontbencher, who, while keen to avoid prolonging the fighting, didn’t want to endorse the attacks on his colleagues in the parliamentary party, ultimately the petitions in support of Corbyn and the impromptu rally have given them more data to go out and recruit people to vote in the next leadership election, more than making up for any loss of support within the party-as-it-is.

But – and it’s a big “but” – I’m not convinced that Corbyn will make it to the ballot.

The party’s legal advice, from the party’s lawyers, GRM Law, is that Corbyn will have to secure 50 nominations to make the ballot, just as any challenger will. My feeling, with MPs of all parties convinced that there will be an election in October as soon as the new Conservative leader is in place, is that pressure from activists to nominate Corbyn will be less fruitful than it was in 2015. (That said, Labour MPs are skittish.) 

The Labour leadership themselves have obtained legal advice showing the reverse from Doughty Chambers. But whichever way the NEC rules, neither side will be able to take it to the courts. Most legal professionals estimate that Labour, like a trade union or a private members’ club, is exempt. “You accept the rules of the club when you join the club,” and that’s the end of it. My impression is that the judiciary would be reluctant to get involved.

The difficulty with predicting what happens next is it brings two of Labour’s iron laws into direct conflict: Labour never gets rid of its leader, and Tom Watson always wins. And I don’t think anyone is sure which of those laws is going to end up broken.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.