Another day, another Government U-turn.
Yesterday, having taken his troops to the top of the hill on the controversial subject of reform of the House of Lords, the Prime Minister looked over his shoulder and realised the ranks behind him were thinner than they needed to be.
It was not his restless Coalition partners who had deserted him but more than 70 of his own backbenchers. The vote on the principle of redesigning the Upper House was not in doubt, as Labour is happy to support it. However, without the accompanying procedural motion, the bill was going nowhere and Labour dug in their heels on that, on the pretext that it did not allow sufficient time for debate and amendments. So David Cameron opted to withdraw and regroup, pledging to return to the fray in the autumn.
This particular U-turn has a dual significance. Tory rebels claimed victory and, newly emboldened, some believe they have seen off the legislation altogether.
Yet the case for major reform of the Lords is compelling. It was first proposed more than a century ago. An unelected second chamber, including hereditary peers and stuffed with superannuated politicians, is a poor advertisement for democracy in the 21st century. A House of Lords and Ladies, of whom 80% are elected by proportional representation, serving single 15-year terms, is not perfect but it is better than the current anachronism. The Coalition has formally committed to grasping this nettle and has a moral obligation to do so.
Equally important are the implications for the Liberal Democrats. Their leader, Nick Clegg, set great store by this legislation. Little wonder. He knows he must eventually face the electorate. To date he has little to brandish before LibDem voters: hard times, no AV, tuition fees trebled in England when he pledged to abolish them, a shrinking economy and a stand-off with Europe. Minor tax changes and watered down banking reform are hardly going to wow them.
Asked whether the Deputy Prime Minister blamed Labour or the Tories for this latest setback, his spokesman quoted from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: "A plague on both your houses", having apparently forgotten that the next line is: "They have made worms' meat of me".
In the absence of an overt split in the Coalition, Lords reform has immense symbolic significance. The LibDems hoped to use it to convince voters that they have delivered on an ancient pledge first made by Lloyd George.
Meanwhile, many Tories are determined to thwart it to show which party runs the Coalition. This is like the fractious married couple who opt to row about the washing-up, rather than their dysfunctional relationship.
Mr Cameron has promised to gather support for a better timetabling motion during the summer but it is difficult to imagine many of the rebels rallying to his side. The danger is that the current "omnishambles" will merely give way to endless tedious procedural wrangles and very little constructive government. It is not just the Coalition that is damaged by such unseemly behaviour: democracy is the loser too.
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