Watching Nick Clegg being taunted by the Tories and - to a lesser degree, by Labour - in the House of Commons yesterday afternoon, I was struck by the lack of support from positive interventions on his own side. I did wonder if it was part of some masochistic strategy to make him look more like a leader trying to do the right thing, but it was almost pitiful as Tory after Tory rose to apply a well-polished boot to Clegg's well-polished policy.
Aside from that, this looks like a genuine disagreement between the parties, unlike the obviously stage-managed rows that have erupted over the past months as part of stage two of the Liberal Democrat strategy for surviving coalition. Stage one was full engagement, stage two is trying to differentiate between the two parties and publicly disagreeing over certain issues. Stage three - still to come - is where the Liberal Democrats put some clear water between themselves and the Tories and separate off, perhaps abandoning the coalition for a supply and confidence model.
I don't see it breaking up the coalition, but unless the Tory whips can threaten enough tame backbenchers or divide the vote (see the excellent Bullets and Ballots blog from Nottingham University for details of how the whips handle rebels). Default setting is that the Whips get things through in the end, but I wonder how effectively they can control these rebels, even with a reshuffle in the offing, who may already have their eyes on a post-Cameron future, should the Tories lose the 2015 general election.
The programme motion is genuinely under serious threat here - Labour and rebel Tories will ally to block it and there's every chance they will succeed. The bill will still pass to second reading, because Labour will vote with the government to move it forward, but don't confuse the two - although Liberal Democrats are puffing themselves up and conflating opposition to the programme motion with opposition to the bill, as if a major constitutional change doesn't deserve decent scrutiny. As the change is arguably a change equal to altering the voting system, there is a strong argument for a referendum, which is not on offer.
Clearly, the Tories are being held to ransom over their boundary changes, which have yet to come back to the House for final approval - and the House has rejected them in the past. I've held the view for a while that we will end up fighting the 2015 election on the same constituency boundaries that we currently do - there are just too many turkeys unwilling to vote for Christmas. The Lib Dems will be looking for an excuse to vote this down - even without their obvious unpopularity with the electorate, under the new boundaries, numbers of their sitting MPs would face difficult fights against Tory incumbents. Perhaps it is instructive that the Liberal Democrats were happy to troop through the lobbies to support swingeing cuts on benefits, to treble tuition fees and slash upper tax rates, to hike VAT and cut the police, but will go to the barricades to defend a flawed plan to reform the Lords. In return for Lords reform, they are prepared to back gerrymandered electoral boundaries on a grand scale.
Democrats? Not much.