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Because of the way the Commons works, the Liberal Democrats may not face a vote as testing as last Thursday's again

by Paul Goodman

Close and contentious Commons votes mean drama: lobbying, protests, MPs torn between the demands of constituents and Whips, Governments struggling with rebels - with much of this acted out beneath the blazing glare of the media searchlight, as backbenchers give interviews, Ministers are doorstepped and their Parliamentary aides resign.

Half of Clegg's MP's didn't support him last week.  Over half his backbenchers voted against him, including two former Party leaders.  Much of the weekend's press has suggested that the Liberal Democrats are hurtling towards a split.  The Deputy Prime Minister, it's said, has a dead career walking.  In the wake of the vote, Tim wrote about Liar Clegg and, a few days earlier, I wrote that the latter risks looking ridiculous.

It's true that Clegg's reputation may never leave the casualty ward.  ("Why did Nick Clegg cross the road?  Because he promised he wouldn't.")  But where are the coming Commons votes that will divide the Liberal Democrats further, weaken Clegg's leadership, strengthen the Liberal Democrat left - and pile public pressure on the Party?  Could the trigger for the next drama be -

  • The Education Maintenance Allowance?  Apparently not.  The Government doesn't need legislation to amend or abolish it - although Labour could certainly force a vote on an Opposition Day motion.  This isn't quite the same thing as voting on contentious legislation, though.
  • George Osborne's spending scaleback?  Unlikely.  The Finance Bill has gone, and local spending reductions won't be voted on.
  • Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms?  Possibly, especially over housing benefit.  But the Government will use as much secondary legislation as possible to make changes.
  • Theresa May and Nick Herbert's policing overhaul?  Again, unlikely.  Why should Liberal Democrats take up the cudgels against elected Police Commissioners?
  • Michael Gove's Free Schools?  Probably not.  Michael Gove's made much of how David Laws championed the pupil premium when the latter was the Liberal Democrat Education spokesman.
  • Control Orders and 14 days?  Maybe.  28 days detention without charge will probably go.  Control Orders is a trickier issue.  But comparing civil liberties questions to the tuition fees drama is instructive.  The latter can mobilise angry and articulate young people en masse.  But there wouldn't be mass lobbying of Liberal Democrat MPs if they compromised their position on control orders.

There'll be more pressure on Clegg if the Liberal Democrats fold in the Oldham East and Saddleworth poll., and after next spring's local elections.  But as far as votes in the Commons are concerned, the worst may be over for his Party.

Which doesn't mean that the Liberal Democrats are out of the woods.  Indeed, they've scarcely begun to explore the perils that await them.  More of that tomorrow.


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