Nick Clegg has a choice. He doesn’t have to lose his prized reform of the undemocratic House of Lords, but in order to not do so he will have to swallow a significant amount of pride.
Here’s what’s not going to happen: Tory MPs are not going to come back in the autumn ready to cave in on their objections. Autumn is conference season. The Tory leadership will be desperate for this not to become a further disturbing display of disunity. The rebels know they will be largely feted by the Tory membership for the stance they have taken. The Tory rebels are not going to change their minds, and their leadership know they will have to be more placatory to get through conference without significant incident.
But the votes to reform the House of Lords exist in Parliament, if Clegg can first persuade himself to work with Labour to make this Bill work (he will need to follow Labour’s lead and swallow a few of Labour’s desired amendments, particularly a referendum and perhaps changing the insane terms), and then persuade David Cameron to let that happen, significant Lords reform could still take place. In all the focus on the rebels this week, it is forgotten that this was a large and comfortably won vote once it had Labour’s support.
So what practical steps must be taken over the summer? Well first the Lib Dems must reach out to Labour. They won’t like this, but their dismissive and hateful attitude is – in part – what has brought us to this place. Their unwillingness to negotiate the Bill with Labour properly in the first place instead presenting a deeply flawed Bill with a “like it or lump it” attitude was largely why Labour said they would force a defeat on the timetable. Clegg must send a team Labour can work with (i.e. not David Laws) to negotiate behind the scenes and thrash our enough agreement to see a way of getting the Bill through the Commons allowing Labour to support closure motions when their amendments or those they support in improving this Bill have been accepted. If Labour and the Lib Dems can use the summer to productively produce agreement that both sides accept and fully understand, then this Bill can be rescued.
It is now clear that a referendum is a likely outcome of such negotiation. If Labour and the Lib Dems can get around the table to save reform, this appears to be a Labour sticking point. I can understand after the bruising experience of the AV vote why Clegg and Co would rather not go through this again, but if properly managed, this time should be different. For a start all three Party leaders would – at least formally – be on the side of change. But if this is to be a part of the process, it must be better managed and better organised than the Yes to AV campaign. It has significantly more going for it than AV, but the campaign must look to recruit from beyond the narrow world of constitutional and electoral reformers to those better able to truly speak to and for the people of Britain. Planning for this should take place immediately. It cannot be left to chance, hope and the usual suspects.
Lords reform is salvageable, but Clegg must stand firm with David Cameron, who has already indicated to the Tory backbenches that he is willing to undertake a significant climb down. While negotiating with Labour, Clegg must stand strong in the face of significant levels of persuasion and arm twisting from his Tory Government colleagues. This will be hard – especially when it will mean siding with Labour and against the Tories, something he is usually politically disinclined to do.
Nick Clegg must decide which he hates more, Labour or an unelected House of Lords. The signs are not great that he’ll make the right decision. But if he does, it opens up a new space where Labour and the Lib Dems can have a new and more productive dialogue. This doesn’t just have an impact on the reform of the House of Lords, but on the potential for the anger between the two parties to finally dissipate somewhat. I don’t know if Clegg wants that, I do know, that to achieve anything the Lib Dems set out to do in this Tory led Government, ultimately and ironically, it will be in building bridges with Labour that they have their only chance to do so.
I for one hope they take it.