The Coalition Cracks
As the Lib-Dems and the Tory Left sink, watch out for Labour.


John O’Sullivan

London — This week saw the beginning of the end of the Conservative-Liberal-Democrat coalition government — Con-Dem to its critics, Lib-Con to most others — that took office barely 26 months ago. It may collapse entirely in the near future; it may stagger on for a year or so, giving way to a minority-Conservative government after a breakup; it may just possibly serve its promised, full five-year term. But it is now a coalition of parties that hate each other deeply and, worse, that cannot find serious policies they can agree to put forward jointly. It is, so to speak, becalmed and in the doldrums, with mutinies and sword fights breaking out between different factions of the crew as officers fear to intervene.

The “immediate cause” (as we used to say in history lessons) of the disputes now raging between the two parties is a parliamentary bill to reform the House of Lords. Americans may imagine that this is a no-brainer: Surely the House of Lords needs reforming to make it more suitable to a democratic age.

Well, there can obviously be two views on that abstract question, but most Tories looked at the actual Lords reform in front of them and (like almost everyone else) concluded that it was, at best, a King Charles spaniel’s dinner. For instance, the proposed new “democratic” element in the Lords would be senators elected once only, for a term of 15 years, by the method of proportional representation. What’s wrong with that? In brief: Senators elected once cannot be held accountable; 15 years gives the last parliamentary generation a veto on this one; electoral reform, beloved of the Liberals, since it would benefit them, was rejected massively in a referendum only last year; and yet even this skewed “democratic” reform would encourage the Lords to challenge the wholly elected House of Commons and impose a kind of constitutional uncertainty on the British constitution. As it happens, it would also give the Lib-Dems a permanent position in government, as the “swing vote” in the upper house.

The bill’s provisions were so silly, in fact, that Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and Lib-Dem leader who introduced its second reading, was made to look foolish by a series of expert interventions from MPs with far deeper constitutional knowledge than his. He didn’t know what he was talking about — even though this bill was among the main conditions (and prizes) he had agreed on with David Cameron when in 2012 they decided to form a coalition and agreed to a set of common policies that they would pursue.

In the last few years, the Tories — and by now not merely the Tory Right — feel that they have accepted a series of unpalatable policies and been prevented from pursuing their own agenda. They sense that this will continue on the topics most important to them — in particular, Britain’s relationship with the European Union — as long as the coalition continues. They were not prepared to support a House of Lords reform that not only damaged the long-term interests of the Tory party but also was apparently not even understood by its principal proposer. So they rebelled and forced the temporary withdrawal of the bill. They are now busy making clear that it will not be acceptable to them under any guise.

Cameron, who promised this bill to Clegg, has lost control of his party. On this and other matters, they will not follow him unless he is able to convince them that he is acting in the Tory interest. He is on parole. Nick Clegg is enraged because, so far, he has been unable to make for the Lib-Dems the long-term political gains that might offset the short-term unpopularity of being in a coalition with a program of fiscal reductions. Before the failure of Lords reform, there was the defeat of the referendum on electoral reform, the measure that had been perhaps the Lib-Dems’ major jewel in the coalition agreement. Now, even if Clegg gets a concession from Cameron, he must assume it might be vetoed by the Tory backbenchers. The coalition is riven. And this fault line was always inherent in the nature of the coalition’s founding.