“We will establish a committee to bring forward plans for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation”
- Coalition Agreement, May 2010.
David Cameron is worried about Nick Clegg, as the Sunday Telegraph reports.
Strategists at 10 Downing Street are drawing up plans for a raft of policy announcements in the weeks following May 5 which can be claimed as Lib Dem "wins" if Mr Clegg suffers reverses in both ballots.
The centrepiece of the policy drive would be plans for a reformed House of Lords, with 80 per cent of its members elected for single "terms" of 15 years.
Crucially for Mr Clegg, they would be elected under a proportional representation (PR) system, although exactly how this would operate would not be known for months, if not years.
That last point is certainly news to anybody who didn't hear about the Coalition Agreement a year ago. And the headline Peers 'to be elected by PR' in sop to Nick Clegg, is likely to generate a lot of ill informed comment.
The more eye-catching line in the piece is that the sensiblist and well informed party activist and blogger Mark Pack already thinks it helpful to pre-emptively issuing a dreaded pre-May 5th vote of confidence to his embattled party leader.
If such a firm proposal was made, Mr Clegg's position would be greatly strengthened. Mark Pack, editor of Lib Dem Voice, the leading website for party activists, said: "If you see House of Lords reform, under a PR system, unveiled soon afterwards, this will provide an immediate reason for Nick's leadership to continue long term."
This may well shore up Nick Clegg's leadership with his party, as Pack argues. But there is less to the deal than meets the eye.
Firstly, that Lords reform is likely to be accelerated if the AV vote goes no was easy to predict. The Guardian reported me telling a Fabian fringe meeting last Autumn: "Katwala said of proposals for an elected House of Lords: "The coalition have got to have some baubles on the Lib Dem tree. If they lose the AV referendum [on electoral reform], the Tories will give them the House of Lords very quickly.)" It would be good to have some progress on the issue, but politically this is more survival strategy than triumph.
Secondly, it is just silly to call a Lords elected by PR a "sop to Clegg".
PR elections has also been the position of the Tory Leader of the House of Commons George Young for many years, long before the Coalition government.
It surprised nobody when PR was stipulated in the Coalition Agreement. This has been a staple assumption of all serious Parliamentary or party debates on Lords reform for many years that any elected element would be by some form of PR. Without this, there would be no prospect of making reform happen.
A good example was the cross-party 2004 proposal which were put forward by George Young and Ken Clarke, along with Robin Cook and Tony Wright for Labour, and LibDem Paul Tyler.
The primary argument for a majoritarian lower house system (such as first-past-the-post, AV or the Jenkins' AV+ which is a majoritarian/PR hybrid) is that it helps voters choose between governments.
Nobody can claim that this applies to elections which do not select an administration, and a second chamber whose on-going confidence is not needed to support one.
So very few people seriously argue for a majoritarian system for the Upper House, and certainly nobody with a serious interest in the politics of making reform happen.
Those who would favour that instead support keeping the appointed House (like Tom Harris) or, in some cases, abolition and unicameralism. (An anti-"deadlock" argument for a majoritarian upper house because a PR second house must not be able to check a majority government is - logically - an argument for unicameralism, and against the checks and balances of a second chamber).
Thirdly, Clegg would have had to trade in a significant LibDem concession. An 80% elected second chamber would give Cameron the policy he was in favour of long before this Coalition.
If you check out how members of this Cabinet voted on the Lords in 2007, it becomes clear that this is a clear LibDem concession to the Conservatives, rather than a Tory concession to the LibDems (particularly as so many Tories were already on the LibDem side of the argument). Indeed, the Clegg deal would have moved the Cabinet backwards from support for a fully elected Lords, as the full list below of Cabinet votes on Lords reform previously shows.
Among MPs who are full members of the Cabinet, there were 12 supporters of a 100% elected Lords, only 6 who maxed out at 80%, and 2 opponents of any elected element
To compromise on an 80% elected Lords would be trade off a LibDem policy supported by all six current LibDem Cabinet ministers and which already in the last Parliament - before there was any whiff of a Coalition - also had the support of George Osborne, Ken Clarke, Liam Fox, Eric Pickles, Owen Paterson and Jeremy Hunt, in order to secure a policy which almost every Conservative in the Cabinet (including Lord Strathclyde) already supported on its merits, without the need for a jot of LibDem persuasion
Again, that the Coalition would go for an 80% elected Lords, retaining a substantial appointed element, was predictable. This blog suggested, on May 23rd 2010 when the Coalition was just nine days old, that despite Nick Clegg publicly stating "I think it should be a wholly elected House" he was already happy to hedge on 80%. I wrote that Clegg's comments to Andrew Marr "gave a strong steer that there is already an agreement between the Conservative and LibDem frontbenches that they will go for the "mainly elected" option.
Those voting figures suggest that, had the LibDems remained outside of the government, they would have been in a very good position to demand that a Tory minority government prioritise Lords reform - as part of a 'supply and confidence' agreement.
They may even have got some concessions in George Osborne's budgets too.
How the current Cabinet voted on Lords elections in March 2007
David Cameron (C) - for 80%; against 100%
Nick Clegg (LD) - for 100%, for 80%
William Hague (C) - for 80%, against 100%
George Osborne (C) - for 100%, for 80%
Ken Clarke (C) - for 100%, for 80%
Theresa May (C) - against 100%, for 80%
Liam Fox (C) - for 100%, for 80%
Vince Cable (LD) - for 100%, for 80%
Iain Duncan Smith (C) - against 100%, for 80%
Chris Huhne (LD) - for 100%, for 80%
Andrew Lansley (C) - against 100%, for 80%
Michael Gove (C) [no vote on 100%; no vote on 80%]
Eric Pickles (C) - for 100%; against 80%
Phillip Hammond (C) - against 100%; for 80%
Caroline Spelman (C) - for 100%; for 80%
Andrew Mitchell (C) - against 100; against 80% [for fully appointed]
Owen Paterson (C) - for 100%; for 80%
Michael Moore (LD) - for 100%; for 80%
Cheryl Gillan (C) - against 100%, against 80% [for fully appointed]
Jeremy Hunt (C) - for 100%; against 80%
Danny Alexander (LD) - for 100%; for 80%
Lord Strathclyde (C) - against 100%, for 80% [against fully appointed]
Baroness Warsi (C) - [not a member of the Lords until 2010]
Also attending Cabinet, but not full Cabinet ministers:
Francis Maude (C) - against 100%; for 80%
Oliver Letwin (C) - against 100%; for 80%
David Willetts (C) - against 100%; for 80%
George Young (C) - against 100%, for 80%
Patrick McLoughlin (C) - against 100%; for 80%
Dominic Grieve (C) - against 100%; for 80%