Cameron's reliance on the boundary changes is a sign of weakness

The PM needs the reform because he is short of ideas to inspire the country - and Tory MPs know it.

For several weeks now the Lib Dems have been making threatening noises about the connection between their ambitions for House of Lords reform and Downing Street’s desired alteration of the boundaries delineating parliamentary constituencies.

Richard Reeves, Nick Clegg’s outgoing strategic advisor, has today given the most explicit warning yet that the junior coalition party would sabotage David Cameron’s pet constitutional change in revenge for failure to whip Lords reform through parliament.

Clegg has decided that he simply cannot be seen to have lost all of his political reforms while allowing the Tories to get theirs through in time for an election. (Besides, the Lib Dems come off worst of all three parties from the boundary changes.) As I noted last week, senior Lib Dems have been briefing that they are confident that Cameron and Osborne recognise the scale of their determination and have offered the necessary reassurances. Tory MPs, meanwhile, do not seem much more cowed by the whips  – but that isn’t so surprising. Downing Street’s inability to read and control the mood in the Conservative ranks is becoming a recurrent theme of this parliament.

It is worth noting too that the Tory leadership is much more wedded to the boundary changes than most ordinary Tory MPs. Many of them will have to be reselected in the newly drawn constituencies, fighting unnecessary battles against candidates from neighbouring seats. They will all be competing to energise demoralised activists, several of whom will be flirting with thoughts of Ukip. The whole process will remind many Conservative incumbents how far removed their Prime Minister is from the mood of the party’s grass roots. That process will be a catalyst for further disloyalty.

Why have the boundary changes become so vital - so very precious - to Cameron and Osborne? Obviously a tweak to the electoral map that could automatically gift the party a dozen or more seats at the next election is a prize worth having. But it says something about the shortage of strategic vision in the Tory high command that they expect to be so reliant on a psephological fix to help them to a majority in the next parliament. The awkward fact for Conservative strategists remains that Cameron and Osborne struggled to beat Gordon Brown, a reviled incumbent, in an election when the left vote was split by disillusioned Labour voters backing Nick Clegg. For all Ed Miliband’s weaknesses as a candidate, he has acquired a higher, plumper cushion of a core vote from Lib Dem refugees. Cameron, meanwhile, hasn’t made much progress in the north or Scotland or among swing voters who considered backing the Tories last time but weren’t quite persuaded.

As I noted in my column this week, Labour focus groups are routinely expressing the view that they thought Cameron would bring a change and are disappointed to discover he just represents “more of the same.” The Tories are in a quiet panic about where to find some deep, un-mined seams of voters. There simply aren’t fat bundles of Conservative voters stuffed down behind marginal constituency sofas that weren’t found in time for the last election.

In other words, Cameron and Osborne need the boundary changes because they are short of ideas to inspire the country and bring about a national swing in their direction. Tory MPs know it and they have their own ideas about what sorts of things the party should be doing and saying to win over the nation - ideas that aren't reflected by coalition policy and definitely don't include House of Lords reform. The fact that the threat of losing the boundary changes is a such a big deal for Downing Street just confirms Conservative MPs’ suspicions that their leaders are adrift, short on imagination or inspiration and weak in the face of Lib Dem blackmail. That is not a recipe for parliamentary obedience.

The Lib Dems have threatened to block the proposed boundary changes if House of Lords reform is rejected. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.