Political sketch: Cash-for-croutons

Dave's battering from the wrong side of Fleet Street.

When Harold Wilson came up with adage "a week is a long time in politics," he could not have imagined that a successor would reduce it to just three hours. Stand up David Cameron.

With the cash-for-croutons scandal leading the news for the second day in a row, the hapless, inaptly named, Paymaster General Francis Maude was trundled out onto the Today Programme at 8am this morning to try to draw a line under it.

He was to make it quite clear that the Prime Minister was standing firm and would not be naming who he had invited round to his place for dinner with him and Sam Cam, as this was a totally private matter.

But as what remained of Francis escaped into the street following disemboweling by Evan Davis. By then, it was already obvious this would not stand and so at 11am, a sweaty faced PM took advantage of a pre-booking at the Alzheimer's Society to cave in.

It would be wrong, however, to lay the real credit for this volte-face with Mr Davis -- or indeed Mr Maude. Instead, the final realization in Downing Street was that they had managed to fall out spectacularly with their traditional backers the Tory Press. It was only after they had digested the full severity of the attacks on their man this morning in the Mail, the Telegraph and the Sun that Cameron Camp accepted the game was up.

The Prime Minister has never been a family favourite among the more recidivist members of Fleet Street who much prefer the nouveau riche to the simply-riche like Dave. And their distrust has only grown over the eagerness with which he has embraced the link-up with the Lib Dems which he and they both know has helped keep the "hang 'em and flog 'em" approach to politics -- so beloved of their readers -- in check.

But even he was stung by the severity of the attacks this morning.

The Daily Mail, which ran a headline asking "Just why is Cameron such a terrible judge of character," questioned the appointment of Treasurer Cruddas and asked about his lack of judgement when it come to "spivs" with money.

It was the Mail which led the campaign to oust previous Tory Treasurer David Rowlands, who forked out £2.7m for the Party at the General Election, having said his appointment was being "viewed with alarm" following allegations about his business affairs. Editor Paul Dacre will have noted that Mr Rowlands was one of the "high value" guests now admitted by the Prime Minister to have sat at the Cameron table.

The Telegraph, up in arms since the Osborne cock-up over pensioners last week infuriated thousands of its readers, said the cumulative impression was "toxic" for the Tories.

Equally scathing was the Sun, who only a year ago was solidly pro-Cameron as he partied away with James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks. But that was before he was forced into the Leveson inquiry to head off the trouble cause by another of his character calls, making Andy Coulson his chief mouthpiece. The Sun asked if millions of voters will be wondering if the 50p tax rate was scrapped after "a few cosy lunches with millionaire backers".

Cameron will no doubt find a way out of this latest disaster as he has the rest, but the mistakes keep adding up.

He gambles on short memories and long traditions to bring the faithful -- and that includes his side of Fleet Street -- back on side come the election. But that assumes he will still be there and, as Margaret Thatcher found out, it isn't always a given.

Who's for dinner? Photograph: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.