The damage has been done. Inside the coalition, it’s now personal

by Peter Watt

Relations have been strained for some time now, but events on Tuesday in the House of Commons have now made it personal.  In essence, as far as the Tories are going to be concerned, the Lib Dems have increased the chances of them losing their seats at the next election.  And the numbers of Tories on the government benches assuming that the next election is now lost will rise further.

But think back.  Both the Lib Dems and the Tories had proposals to reduce the size of the House of Commons in their manifestos.  The Lib Dems linked this to a change in the voting system.  For the Tories though it wasn’t just about principle it was also a matter of pragmatism.  For election after election they had been screwed by the electoral arithmetic of uneven constituency boundaries.  The result was that it took far fewer Labour votes to get a Labour MP than Tory ones.  It made winning elections even harder for the Tories and it made them pretty cross.  To be fair, from their point of view you can see why!

So unsurprisingly the Coalition agreement contained a commitment to introduce a referendum on AV, a commitment to reduce the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600 members and to equalise the size so that there were approximately 76,640 voters in each one.  It also contained a commitment to reform the House of Lords.  And the stated assumption was that both sides in the coalition would support all of the measures it contained.

To risk incurring the wrath of John Rentoul and his ‘banned list’ – the coalition agreement wasn’t a pick-n-mix.

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 duly introduced the referendum on AV and also the aim of reducing the number of constituencies to 600.  It all started to go a little wrong when the Lib Dems felt let down by the way that the Tories campaigned against AV in the referendum.  The referendum was lost but at that point the Lib Dems could still point to House of Lords reform as a sign that their constitutional reforming zeal was far from being finished.

Except that in July last year over 90 Tories rebelled and voted against the timetable motion on the House of Lords reform bill and effectively scuppered it.  Nick Clegg was forced a matter of weeks later to concede to the House that the bill was lost.  The Lib Dems were furious; this was the Tory troops reneging on the deal and it hurt.  The anger over the AV poll, the lost by-elections, the falling poll ratings;  it all came to a head and they vowed revenge – and the reduction in the number of seats was it.

As one senior Lib Dem said to me yesterday, “It shows how livid we were when they screwed up Lords Reform and thought we’d take it on the chin.”

But the Tories are equally furious.  As far as they are concerned there was no link between the boundary changes and House of Lords reform.  The link was between boundary changes and the AV referendum; they were in the same Act for that reason.  The stymying of boundary changes is a breach of trust with very personal potential consequences for some of them in May 2015.

So just over half way through the Parliament there is a very real sense of anger in both halves of the coalition.

Up until now it had been the pesky Lords doing the damage to the boundary changes.  But on Tuesday even this pretence went as Tories had to watch Lib Dem MPs vote with Labour to finally kill off any chance of changing constituency boundaries.  It was a move designed to extract revenge and to wound and it will certainly have hurt.  The mood must be very sour indeed.

Unsurprisingly there have been statements made from senior sources from both parties saying that there will be no long lasting damage and that the work of government goes on.  Andrew Lansley said that the coalition parties had:

“Departed from each other on this specific vote, but would continue to work together until the next election.  You come together in a coalition agreement, and if you live by that agreement together, then actually you can live with some of the disagreements that occur from time to time,”

But no one really believes that this is the case.  The damage has definitely been done.  It’s a bit like someone at work that you’ve never really liked but have to work with to get the job done.  Then you see them slagging you off to the boss and stopping you getting promoted.  Now it’s personal.  You still have to work with them but it will never be the same again – and you’re just biding your time!

So of course government will continue; but in ways that are not yet clear things have just got a whole heap more difficult for them.  Cameron and Clegg may be able to move on but not many of their colleagues will be able to.  And for the Tories, the nearer the election gets the worse their resentment will become.

And the final hurt for the Tories may well be that it is possible that the real winners could be the Lib Dems.  In a close election fought on current boundaries the best that the Tories can probably hope for is that they are the largest party.  That means that they may well need the bloody back stabbers again.

Oh yes, now it’s personal.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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9 Responses to “The damage has been done. Inside the coalition, it’s now personal”

  1. PlatoSays says:

    Peter – you aren’t being accurate – the AV ref and the Boundary changes were in the same Act and was passed, there was and is no link between HoL reform – a glance at the Coalition Agreement confirms this.

    That’s why the Tories are so angry – they gave Clegg his ref on the day he wanted and the question he wanted. They even whipped their own side to vote for his crap HoL bill and it was still defeated. Clegg said before the HASC that there was NO LINK between boundaries and HoL reform – what more evidence is required?

    The LDs changed their mind because they’re still smarting over losing their AV ref. It’s as simple as that.

    I’ll never vote for them again. Children playing at politics.

  2. uglyfatbloke says:

    The whole AV+ thing was a nonsense. Do we need democratic reform? Of course we do, but AV+ would not have brought any meaningful change, it was just a fig-leaf so that Clegg etc. could justify going into power with the Tories with their own members/voters.

  3. Nick says:

    And yet you vote against the measure.

    That just shows what scum the Lib Dems and Labour are, to go against a democratic principle.

    It’s rotten boroughs all over again.

  4. Rallan says:

    Is there anyone that the Liberal Democrats are popular with now? The electorate? Labour? Conservatives? And yet there is a real chance they will end up in coalition again, because the electorate has no faith in any of the useless, disgraceful main parties. Mutual contempt exists between the electorate and our political “leaders”.

    These are nasty little political games, rigging the boundaries to deny democracy. No suggestion that this might be morally or ethically wrong comes from anyone on the left, eh? The progressive majority must be so proud.

    Will Labour care if it wins by cheating? Considering the promotion of rampant postal vote fraud in Labours favour and the stuffing of England with immigrants to shift voting Labours way, I don’t suppose you have any decency in you at all.

    No matter who “wins” in 2015 it is going to be an ugly, unsatisfying election ending in a hollow victory for unwanted politicians.

  5. Peter Watt says:

    PlatoSays – I am not saying that there is a link between the boundaries and HoL reform, just that the Lib Dems say that there is and the Tories say that there isnt.

  6. Robert says:

    The coalition will continue until 2015 but are relations too damaged for it to continue after 2015? My impression is that it will only continue if there is no other option for both parties.

  7. Ex-Labour says:

    @ Peter Watt

    Sorry Peter but you are being disingenuous and Platosays is correct. There is no link in the coailition agreement but your article has this as its premise for your criticisms.

    Example: “Tory troops reneging on the deal” – there was no deal or link for HoL

    Your standards are usually higher.

  8. Peter Watt says:

    Ex-Labour – apologies but you’re misreading (or I’ve just written it badly!). I’m not saying that the Tories did renege, I’m saying that the Libs think that they did. My point is that both sides now think the other shafted them. That is why I think it is hugely significant.

  9. Ex-Labour says:

    @ Peter watt

    Peter, the issue is that Clegg has shown himself to be what every sensible person has thought for some time and that he is a spoilt brat. If an agreement was made that there would be an AV referendum in return for boundary change support then I’m afraid it is he that has renaged. There are noises from within Labour that should it be necessary they might want to deal with the LD’s after the next election, but these current events should be a warning to Labour. However I live near Cleggs constituency and the chances of him being re-elected after all of his broken promises are slim to non-existant.

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