Analysis: Time to let go of Lords reform

Liberal Democrats would do well to realise it's time to let go of Lords reform – and by doing so make the most of their remaining time in government.

There's a sense of political exhaustion surrounding Nick Clegg's attempt to make parliament's second chamber mainly elected. When the coalition was formed in May 2010 it was always going to be a tough ask: this is the reform which has eluded politicians of all parties for the last century. Since then we've discovered why that is. There are so many different ways Lords reform can be carried out, and so many difficult pitfalls, that achieving any sort of meaningful consensus is difficult. The death by a thousand cuts was already well under way by the time MPs and peers finishing scrutinising the coalition's proposals.

Despite being at the centre of this year's Queen's Speech, Lords reform simply didn't win over enough support on the Tory backbenches. With a constitutional struggle with the Lords likely, it's not enough to secure a Commons majority – even one as big as the 338 the coalition achieved at second reading earlier this summer. Nearly 100 government rebels are simply not politically sustainable for Cameron over a period of many months. Continuing with this thorn in the side of the Tory party for that long would not do the Tory party's unity any favours.

Not all are accepting the inevitability of this logic. Campaigners are concentrating their hopes on the Labour party, which has backed the principle of Lords reform but not let the government get its way on timetabling the legislation. If it wasn't clear before that this partisan move has proved fatal to the coalition's proposals, it surely is now. Ed Miliband may be a supporter of Lords reform, but his party's enthusiasm for coalition troublemaking has ultimately proved decisive.

Whereas before the opposition's party political impulses have been at odds with their principles, now the case is altered. Labour could generate the most chaos within the Tory party by making sudden concessions on the programme motion. They could cut a deal on the number of days parliament would spend on the bill, giving Cameron an easier ride and keeping hopes of the reforms becoming reality alive.

Labour are unlikely to make such a move. Their commitment to Lords reform may be more limited than they choose to admit – and it is very probably not big enough to reverse their previous position. It is not a priority in the present climate – a phrase which here means 'not during a recession'. Hopes that Labour might come to Clegg's rescue could just be clutching at straws.

If that's the case, what happens next? Liberal Democrats have been muttering darkly about "consequences" for a while now. Their targets are firmly fixed on finishing off boundary changes, which have proved unexpectedly beneficial to the Conservatives and damaging to the Lib Dems. It doesn't matter that the original coalition deal was boundary changes in exchange for a referendum on electoral reform. What matters to Cameron and Clegg is what can still be achieved in this coalition.

There are still two years until the autumn conferences of 2014, when both Tories and Lib Dems will gear themselves up for the general election campaign to come. Until then the party leaders, their own credibility invested in the coalition's longevity, will want to cling on as long as they can. So they have heeded the advice of the experts and set about serious attempts at midterm renewal. The long-anticipated reshuffle will be a big part of this in September, but the 'coalition 2.0' document will be even bigger. This is an opportunity for new deals to be cut and new goals to be set. It is as much about leaving policies behind as it is deciding on a restricted number of new ones.

With Lords reform, boundary changes and electoral reform all dead, the coalition – and Lib Dems in particular – will be looking around to make some sort of impact in constitutional reform. Party political funding is one option. Boosting up its tepid proposals for the recall of MPs might be another.

Lords reform seems dead in the water: too much trouble than it is worth for coalition leaders looking to survive a challenging couple of years in power. Despite the intense disappointment many reformers will feel, there is a chance for achievable alternatives to be agreed behind closed doors this summer.

It won't be much consolation for Lib Dems – but what other choice do they have?

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