The announcement that Lib Dem demands for Lords reform have been dumped is a revealing insight into the now unhappy marriage of inconvenience between David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
It shows the coalition is not the sum of equal parts. Clegg’s MPs have, by and large, backed the entire governmentt agenda without too much public complaining (the most noticeable exception being Andrew George).
Even where Lib Dems have spoken out, the government’s whipping operation has prevented serious problems developing for the legislative programme.
Lib Dems rebelled on initial NHS plans and party conference votes demanded changes in tack on key policies like benefit cuts for people with cancer. But even these high profile demands and votes have been overturned in the Commons when Lib Dem MPs have had whips ensure the need for coalition stability trumps other concerns.
Tory MPs clearly feel they don’t owe their coalition partners the same solidarity – and campaigned vigorously against AV and provided a record rebellion on Lords reform.
The decision will resound in Cowley Street where Lib Dem HQ staffers are having to deal with (or perhaps, more literally, not) the massive drop in members revealed by the Electoral Commission recently. To lose a few members may be unfortunate; to lose one in four in a year is beyond careless and demonstrates the widening chasm between Lib Dem activists (and former supporters) and the Clegg/Hughes leadership team.
But even the Lib Dem members who gave the coalition a chance to begin with in 2010 have reached breaking point with the economy stalling, increasingly fractious government relations and a failure to secure key party aspirations. With the decimation of the party’s membership and councillor base in local elections, things cannot only get better for the yellow team - and increasingly uppity Tories are not helping.
• Boundary review: Lib Dem turkeys vote for Christmas 8 Jul 2010
The volume from Tory backbenchers is rising despite the lack of experience of government, a lack of humility for not winning in 2010, a lack of respect for the tough votes Lib Dem MPs have taken (often ignoring constituency demands and needs) – and a distinct lack of commitment to assisting the party that gifted them government after 13 years of significant Labour majorities.
But for Cameron the climbdown marks a far more important point in this government. It shows, after just two years in (shared) power, the PM is on the ropes when it comes to his own party.
Perhaps it’s the higher borrowing and faltering economy that has lost him and George Osborne the faith of his own backbenchers. Maybe some MPs recognise their chance on the ministerial ladder is disadvantaged by the need to ensure Lib Dem representation as well as Cameron’s (arguably tokenistic) attempts at gender/ethnicity balance.
Either way, to refuse to fight his backbenchers on an issue which is viewed as a trivial aside by most people – and to deny his deputy his one remaining flagship policy – speaks volumes about the leadership skills of the man who was supposed to have detoxified the Tory brand and managed their transformation into a modern party of government.
It is a marked transformation from the smooth PR man of dog-sledding, hoodie-hugging times. It is a new, marked man period more akin to John Major – and with the same fixation with newspaper headlines (hence the pasty and caravan tax u-turns of the omnishambles budget) - we now see him stalking the Olympics Stadium hoping to bathe in others’ glory.
Given Cameron hasn’t had to fight for much in life, including jobs apparently, this was perhaps predictable. But, following the conception of the economic crisis that (ahem) swept the coalition into power sharing, there is something of a bittersweet irony to have ended up with a sub-prime minister.