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Clegg announces death of Lords reform dream

Nick Clegg ushered in the start of a new political season today by announcing the death of a long-cherished dream; reform of the House of Lords.

The news was actually sneaked out during the Olympics (what a surprise), but as he came to the House to make the formal announcement this afternoon, it was impossible not to be struck by the way in which a politician who once seemed notably optimistic and upbeat (remember Cleggmania?) came across as angry and bitter.

The coalition is evidently at a very low ebb, the day-to-day misery of an unhappy, uneasy marriage there for all to see.

It might seem an arcane issue, but Lords reform could still yet be the subject that breaks this partnership - or at least renders it ungovernable and unfit for office.

Mr Clegg is right to be angry with the Tories, since it was part of the coalition agreement, but as he has discovered the hard way, the Tory leadership is all too able in this kind of governmental relationship to have its cake and eat it.

Ministers can propose a reform, argue for it and even vote for it themselves secure in the knowledge that their backbench colleagues will troop into the opposition lobbies and kill it off.

Mr Clegg is bored of this game and I'm not surprised.

But, unfortunately, conventions are important. It is generally understood at Westminster that a minister who votes against a government policy must resign. Indeed those who don't jump are almost invariably pushed.

It is a key tenet of the notion of collective responsibility, but, more importantly, it is central to maintaining discipline in any government.

And the facts are simple. Tory ministers did support - and insisted they would vote for - Lords reform.

The boundary changes, which Mr Clegg has now insisted he will vote against, are government policy. Indeed, he has already voted in favour of them. He says he still believes in them. The Boundary Commission is actually still working on them (which is not an inexpensive process, one suspects).

House of Lords reform has been a longtime Lib Dem policy Credit: Reuters/Leon Neal/Pool

So if David Cameron brings them back to another vote, as he is due to do next summer, then Mr Clegg and his colleagues must surely resign to vote against, mustn't they?

Now of course Mr Cameron might, and probably will, decide to dump the vote and push this issue to beyond 2015. But that is going to make his backbenchers very angry indeed and ensure that discipline is ever harder to enforce.

It is possible that the coalition may limp on until its specified end date, but selling it as a bold new form of government at the next election (the stated Lib Dem strategy) is going to be very hard indeed.