Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

No gold for politicians as reforms fall at first hurdle

All good things come to an end, and so on Sunday night, Freddie Mercury and the Spice Girls called time on the Olympic Games.

There are plenty of reasons to be sad about the extinguishing of the flame. But the silver lining (subject to your preferences) could be the return of politics to the news. Over the past two-and-a-bit weeks, everything we've heard about our politicians has had an Olympics theme.

But despite the tidal wave of games coverage, one political development did manage to make an impression: the collapse of agreement between the Coalition partners over how to reform our political system. David Cameron wants a boundary review, Nick Clegg wants Lords reform. But the two parties will not support each other, so neither change will happen any time soon.

Lords reform has been shelved, with Mr Clegg giving up hope of winning over Tory backbenchers. In return, his party, along with Labour, is likely to scupper hopes of the redrawing of boundaries and corresponding cut in the number of Westminster MPs.

Aside from the prospects of the coalition falling apart before 2015 (only one voter in six thinks it will survive, a poll revealed yesterday) there are the practical implications of the two flagship reform policies being ditched.

Along with the referendum on changing the voting system, itself dead in the water, they made up a delicately balanced package that the leaders hoped their parties could agree on. In Northern Ireland, voters would have been electing 16 Westminster MPs, rather than the current 18, with MLAs cut from 108 to 96.

It's good news for Gregory Campbell of the DUP and SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell, whose seats would have suffered most under the proposed changes. And it's great news for the 92 hereditary peers who somehow survive.

So what remains of the coalition's package, which promised to "restore people's faith in their politics and politicians"? There is the statutory register of lobbyists and the implementation of individual electoral registration in England and Wales, mirroring the system in Northern Ireland.

And there is still the vexed West Lothian Question, which could have a profound impact on the work of Northern Ireland's MPs at Westminster.

Yesterday the Cabinet Office assured me that this was still very much on the agenda - a commission is currently coming up with recommendations on how to solve the quirk that allows MPs from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to vote on matters that do not affect their constituencies.

Rather like Lords reform, this is an issue that sparks furious debate at Westminster, and like the other reforms oculd prove too much for the coalition.

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