Cameron's decision to drop Lords reform will test the coalition like never before

Which will crack first, Cameron’s hold on his party or the glue that binds the coalition?

So now we know. The reported abandonment of Lords Reform means the government’s legislative programme is being run, not by the Prime Minister, but by a group of 100 or so Conservative backbenchers who henceforth will be calling the shots. It’s quite a moment.

The received wisdom seems to be that that "no Lords Reform means similarly no boundary changes", there’s a minor sulk for a day or so and then everyone moves on.

This is quite wrong. From a Lib Dem perspective, the two great constitutional changes we wanted to achieve in government will have failed. There will have to be some mighty great bits of compensation in return – and it’s unlikely the Tories will deliver. Can anyone see Osborne – now guaranteed to be Chancellor until the next election according to the PM yesterday – agreeing to a radical green agenda? Ditto on delivering root and branch banking reform, the so-called "Vickers Plus" plan apparently favoured by Vince. Self-interest means neither the Labour or Conservative leadership will show any great enthusiasm for Party Funding reform. And even if they did, those emboldened Tory backbenchers now know they can stop anything they don’t like in its tracks.

But neither is the status quo acceptable to grassroots Lib Dems. Expect fireworks at the Brighton conference where Lib Dem members will be demanding Nick Clegg negotiates the earth in return for this latest Conservative debacle – but which he knows he cannot deliver because his Tory opposite number is holed below the water line.

Nick’s only power will be similarly to say a firm "No" to anything we find even vaguely uncomfortable going forward. The snooping bill should be firmly in his sights. But more than that, he needs to stop any of the legislation that the Tory right are itching to start pushing – attempts to abandon the European Convention of Human Rights and an EU referendum are two obvious areas in which Nick is more likely to be able to control Tory backbenchers than the PM. There’s an irony there.

And so we reach an impasse in which the sole government agenda item will become the centrepiece of the coalition agreement – reducing the deficit. And even there a fight is brewing as Vince pushes for Plan B and Osborne looks to cut Welfare. Another impasse looms.

And all the time the pressure builds. Tory backbenchers will be stretching their muscles, Lib Dem grass roots will be pushing right back. Eventually something is going to give. The only question is which is the weakest spot – Cameron’s hold on his party or the glue that binds the coalition?

One of them is going to crack first. And then the fun really starts.



Lords attending the State Opening earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.