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

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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