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Britain's Liberal Democrats give up on reforming House of Lords

August 6, 2012 | 11:51 am

CleggLONDON -- The lords and ladies of the house can breathe a lot easier. The British government, not so much.

Nick Clegg, Britain’s deputy prime minister, conceded defeat Monday in the campaign to overhaul the House of Lords by turning the venerable but undemocratic institution into a partially elected one. He acknowledged that his Liberal Democrats lacked the cross-party support necessary to get a reform bill through the House of Commons.

But while aristocrats and political appointees can bask in the relief of hanging on to their red robes and power in the upper house of Parliament, Britain’s coalition government is now under perhaps its greatest strain since it came to power two years ago.

Clegg, whose “Lib Dems” are the coalition’s junior partner, blasted the dominant Conservatives for breaking the agreement that the two parties sealed when they entered into government together in what has always been an unlikely marriage. In return, Clegg said, his party would withhold its support for a Conservative-backed plan to redraw the boundaries of parliamentary seats.

“Part of our contract has now been broken,” Clegg said. “Clearly I cannot permit a situation where Conservative rebels can pick and choose the parts of the contract they like, while Liberal Democrat [lawmakers] are bound to the entire agreement. Coalition works on mutual respect; it is a reciprocal arrangement, a two-way street.”

The failure of the reform effort is a bitter blow to Clegg’s party and his personal credibility, both of which have steadily sunk in the opinion polls since the British general election in May 2010.

Today’s Liberal Democrats are heirs of the party that sharply curtailed the power of the House of Lords a century ago, noting that a truly democratic country could hardly be run in part by people whose positions as lawmakers were based purely on pedigree. In 1999, the then-governing Labor Party went further, getting rid of most of the upper body’s “hereditary peers,” such as dukes and earls, and making the chamber mostly an appointed one.

Taking the next step of turning the House of Lords into a mostly elected senate of sorts featured prominently in the Lib Dems’ platform.

But last month, a backbench Conservative rebellion forced Prime Minister David Cameron to backpedal on his promised support. He withdrew an anti-filibuster bill that would have helped push the Liberal Democrats’ reform proposal through the House of Commons, which essentially doomed the measure's prospects.

Clegg sought to put the best face possible on Monday's announcement, insisting that his personal relationship with Cameron remains good and that his party will continue to support the deep and controversial austerity cuts introduced by the Conservatives to erase Britain’s gaping budget deficit. But Clegg’s influence in government is now under question, as is the long-term viability of the coalition.

“My aim has always been to honor the coalition agreement in full -- no more, no less. I stood ready, and stand ready, to deliver reforms that are controversial for my party because that is part of a wider, reciprocal arrangement,” Clegg said.

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-- Henry Chu

Photo: Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg during a news conference Monday in London at which he announced that the government will abandon plans to overhaul the House of Lords amid resistance from both his coalition partners in the Conservative Party and the opposition Labor Party. Credit: Stefan Rousseau / Associated Press.

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