U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he will order his Liberal Democrat lawmakers to block legislation wanted by the Conservatives after Tory rebels derailed plans to overhaul the House of Lords.
Clegg said the Conservatives had “broken the contract” between the coalition partners as he confirmed the government has abandoned attempts to reform the 700-year-old upper chamber of Parliament until at least 2015. The Liberal Democrats will respond by opposing plans to redraw parliamentary boundaries that may help the Tories at the next general election, he said.
The move plunges relations between the two parties to the lowest ebb since they came to power two years ago and will raise fresh doubts over whether the alliance can survive until 2015. For many Liberal Democrats, the introduction of a mainly elected House of Lords as a priority.
“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 to the entire agreement,” Clegg told a press conference in London today.
He said Prime MinisterDavid Cameron had failed to win round Conservative rebels who voted along with the opposition Labour Party against fast-tracking the legislation last month. Without a new agreement to limit the amount of time spent debating the bill, it had no chance of success, he said.
“It is obvious that the bill’s opponents would now seek to inflict on it a slow death: ensuring Lords reform consumes an unacceptable amount of parliamentary time,” he said. “Clearly, it would be wrong for me to allow Parliament to be manipulated in this way, not least at a time when there is so much else for us to concentrate on.”
Abandoning the bill is a further blow for Clegg, who in 2011 lost a referendum to change the voting system in general elections. He will face voters in 2015 without having delivered any of the constitutional changes he said he’d introduce in the 2010 coalition negotiations.
Cameron has been seeking to get the government back on track after being forced to abandon several of the tax-raising proposals announced in the March budget following a popular backlash and months of poor economic news.
The government had been planning to put a new timetable Motion on the Lords bill to lawmakers after they returned from the parliamentary recess in October, giving time to win over opponents. Last month’s rebellion saw almost a third of Conservative lawmakers vote against the motion, the biggest revolt since the coalition government came to power in May 2010.
Clegg dismissed suggestions the rift could cause the coalition to collapse before the next election, saying the overriding priority of both parties is to reduce the budget deficit and pull the economy out the recession.
The House of Lords Reform Bill involved replacing the current 816-member chamber, made up of political appointees, hereditary nobility and Church of England bishops, with a smaller chamber of mainly elected members serving a single 15-year term. The bill would reduce the size of the chamber by almost a half.
Conservative opponents say an elected second chamber will challenge the primacy of the Commons, the lower house. The opposition Labour Party said it supported the legislation in principle, but wanted more time to scrutinize it. Critics on both sides said Lords reform should not be a priority at a time when the economy is in recession.
For the Conservatives, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Clegg’s decision is “disappointing,” but there “isn’t a cigarette paper” between the two parties in their determination get the economy moving again.
Other Conservative lawmakers expressed anger at the Liberal Democrat threat. “Apart from keeping ministers in office, what is the coalition now for?” Douglas Carswell wrote on his Twitter account. His Tory colleague, Stewart Jackson, wrote that the coalition would be “finished” if the Liberal Democrats voted down boundary changes.
Clegg, asked by reporters about relations with Cameron, replied they are “fine, thank you very much.” He compared the breach of the coalition agreement to the breaking of a business deal and said his relationship with Cameron is “amicable.”
“It’s a sad day, but it’s the Tories’ fault, not ours,” Liberal Democrat party president, Simon Hughes, told Sky News. “I’m angry but I can’t do anything about it, I have to accept that, but they then have to accept that they won’t get boundary changes through until after the next election.”.
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