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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era