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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.