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