This week’s falling out between the coalition partners over Lords reform leaves David Cameron with two tricky problems to mull over the summer.
The first, and most talked about, is how to get his party to back some measure of Lords reform else risk seeing Liberal Democrats outside ministerial ranks (and even some inside) see it as open season on future legislation as it goes through Parliament. The sort of effective and tight whipping operations that saw Liberal Democrats in both Houses votes for a range of measures they did not like ‘because there were in the Coalition Agreement’ will be a distant memory if Lords reform fails.
However, there is a second problem too for Cameron. Even if he manages to finesse a way through Lords reform, the sight of so many Conservative MPs treating the Coalition Agreement’s contents as mattering so little will leave a serious long-term strain.
For the Coalition to run effectively for another three years requires a degree of reconciliation. Two other policy areas offer themselves up as being both appealing to the Liberal Democrats and also not too unappealing to the increasingly troublesome right wing of his own party.
The first is party funding reform. A succession of independent reviews have called for action but cross-party agreement on legislation has proved elusive. Force through reform even in the face of Labour resistance and Cameron lets Liberal Democrats say privately, ‘At least we’ve got one long-term change to how politics is run secured’.
It would be meeting the party’s manifesto commitments to cleaning up politics and also help the party with a more level playing field in future. In other words, it would be very popular with Liberal Democrats. Force it through, moreover, in the face of Labour opposition and Cameron also helps keep Liberal Democrats from looking too wistfully at the other side of Parliament and wondering what it would be like to have a different coalition partner.
The second is the highly controversial Draft Communications Data Bill. Drop this and Liberal Democrats would be celebrating, seeing a major win for their party on civil liberties. Many Conservatives too, especially those of a more libertarian inclination, would also welcome this move – and not only David Davis. As an added bonus, dropping it would also free up Home Office funds which would provide a small but welcome piece of relief to the tight deficit pressures.
Cameron will need to deliver some right wing crowd pleasers at his party conference in September. A wise Cameron will also match that with some Liberal Democrat pleasers too.