It has been a curious political August.
Nick Clegg’s statement on the Liberal Democrats’ intention to vote against the proposed Parliamentary boundary changes, initiated by the Coalition Government of which he is Deputy Minister, would normally command headlines for days.
Under cover of the Olympics, Clegg’s news management worked, but when the Prime Minister said that he intended the proposals to be taken forward, Cameron ensured that this was an issue which will return to haunt the Coalition.
In a little noticed part of Clegg’s statement, he said: “The Government will make a full statement on this – to Parliament – as soon as it returns in September.”
Well, that will be interesting. What will the Government say? For “the Government” does not have a position on this matter. As David Cameron made clear following Clegg’s statement, he intends, as Tory Leader, to press on with the boundary changes. Nick Clegg says that when votes take place on boundary changes for the 2015 election “Liberal Democrats in Parliament will oppose them.”
There was much talk from Nick Clegg in his statement of a “breach of contract” by the Tories, an interpretation denied vehemently by Cameron. In my days as a law student, I learned that a fundamental breach of a contract entitles the parties to it to terminate it. The Liberal Democrats seem to have had a different contract law lecturer.
Clegg wants us to “draw a line under these events and get on with the rest of our programme for Government.” Jeremy Browne MP repeated this approach: “What has become clear is that the two parties cannot agree on that constitutional reform package and it seems to me to make sense that if there’s an area we can’t agree on, we put that to one side, we accept that we can’t agree on that and we get on with working together on all the areas we can agree on,” he told the BBC.
The Liberal Democrats want to leave the issue hanging in mid-air whilst the Coalition Government continues as if nothing has happened.
Agreements do not work like that. If an agreement is broken, then there are consequences. But this Government is so split, it cannot even agree on whether the Coalition Agreement has been broken.
When Parliament returns, the British people need to know whether its Government considers that the Coalition Agreement has been broken on constitutional reform and what it intends to do next. The Boundary Commission is continuing with a protracted and expensive review of boundaries and will continue to do so unless Parliament tells it otherwise. In Wales alone, more than £600,000 has been spent already.
But it is now highly unlikely that any boundary changes will happen, at least before 2015. To continue the review in the context of the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement is a scandalous waste of time, money and effort.
But the real significance of breaking agreements is its impact on trust between the parties to it. Trust, once lost, is very difficult to rebuild. In Parliament, MPs have seen tension between the Tories and Liberal Democrats building over the last two years. Nick Clegg’s statement on boundary changes, even though delivered in the dog days of August, will deepen the breach between the parties, a breach which goes to the heart of this Coalition Government’s capacity to govern effectively. At a time of deepening economic crisis, the consequence of this breach of contract is that Britain will lose out.