An uncertain future for Mr Clegg's reforms

Wearing my very best anorak, I entered the flock-wallpapered splendour of Lords Committee Room 1 to hear Nick Clegg updating the Lords Constitution Committee on his various proposals to revamp our system of government.

The discussion ranged over devolution, Scottish independence, Lords reform and beyond. For me, the top line was his views on devolution and a Scottish independence referendum.

The Clegg argument is that the referendum should be a straight choice; yes or no to independence, and should not be cluttered up with any third option for enhanced devolution. He thought that if Scotland opted to remain within the UK, that would be the moment to look at further devolution.

Cross-examined by the Conservative Lord Powell, Mrs Thatcher's former advisor, he rejected the suggestion that he was "calling the SNP's bluff", and said that they should have the courage of their convictions and make the case for independence. He added that they had failed to come up with answers to simple questions about the currency and armed forces of an independent Scotland, and accused them of attempting to "obfuscate and confuse" the issue.

Questioned by the Conservative former Welsh Secretary, Lord Crickhowell, the DPM agreed that what was needed was a UK-wide conversation rather than the piecemeal passing out of powers to Scotland, or Wales or Northern Ireland, without regard to the overall UK picture - hinting that a wider devolutionary settlement might eventually be needed.

It was also noticeable that the Deputy Prime Minister did not feel able to even hint that a bill to move us towards an elected Upper House would be in the legislative programme for the coming parliamentary year.

The brutal fact is that if the bill isn't in the programme, Lords Reform won't happen in this Parliament. The government needs to be able to at least make a credible threat that it will over-ride their lordships, should they throw out its plans for their future. That is possible if a bill is introduced this May, and thrown out in the coming session. The same bill could then be re-introduced in the Commons in 2013 and, under the terms of the Parliament Act, would become law in the form it left the Commons, once the Lords amended or rejected it.

But if it is not introduced in the coming year, the government would face the prospect of trying to over-ride the Lords in the run-up to the 2015 General Election - just when ministers would much rather be focusing on bread-and-butter issues, not abstruse constitutional matters. So my guess is that if there is no Lords Reform Bill in May, peers will have seen off yet another attempt to replace them with an elected house.

His other caveat was that if Scotland did leave the UK, then Lords reform could well be lost in the constitutional aftershocks - at which the committee almost purred at the prospect of many years of happy hair-splitting ahead.

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