Fragile UK coalition heading for showdown


BRITISH Prime Minister David Cameron’s electoral reform plans are in tatters and his uncomfortable coalition with the Liberal Democrats further strained by his inability to persuade 91 of his Conservative MPs to back an elected House of Lords.
The failure also embarrasses Lib Dems leader and deputy PM Nick Clegg, who had promised his party would use its position in the coalition of uneasy bedfellows to win political reform.
Mr Clegg had wanted the Lords to become an elected house. With this goal now thwarted, he has announced that his MPs will vote against the Prime Minister’s goal of revising parliamentary boundaries to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600.
The redrawing was expected to result in the abolition of up to 40 Labour and Lib Dem seats, boosting Mr Cameron’s chances of re-election in 2015 by giving him up to another 20 seats.
Labour had fiercely fought the proposals because it feared they could give the Conservatives power for a generation.
Mr Clegg said the Conservatives had breached the coalition agreement by trying to “pick and choose” which parts to back. “My party has held to that contract even when it meant voting for things that we found difficult,” he said.
“But the Conservative Party is not honouring the commitment to Lords reform and, as a result, part of our contract has now been broken. Clearly I cannot permit a situation where Conservative rebels can pick and choose the parts of the contract they like, while Liberal Democrat MPs are bound by the entire agreement. So I have told the Prime Minister that when . . . Parliament votes on boundary changes for the 2015 election, I will be instructing my party to oppose them.”
Conservatives retorted that Mr Clegg was failing to stand by his own principles. Conservative MP Eleanor Laing said: “He said [boundary changes] will make politics fairer. Now he says, ‘no, we’re not going to do this because making politics fairer is now not a good idea’. It is rather inconsistent, to put it politely.”
Mr Clegg had earlier argued that the plans to equalise the size of electoral constituencies would correct “fundamental injustices in how people elect their MPs”.
Conservative Chancellor George Osborne said abandoning the push for electoral reform would free the government to “focus 110 per cent on the economy, which is what the public wants”.
It is the third major policy defeat for Lib Dems trying to justify their decision to enter the coalition, following the disastrous failure of a referendum on voting reform and the introduction of steep university fees.
But psephologist Lewis Baston said, “Some Liberal Democrat MPs will be breathing a secret sigh of relief. They have dodged a bullet. The Lib Dems suffer worst proportionately from the changes because their seats tend, on average, to have smaller majorities and to be surrounded by areas where the Lib Dems did not poll many votes in 2010.”First published in The Age.