Mischievous Lib Dem chatter is a political gift for Osborne

Nothing is surer to mute Tory complaints about the Chancellor than wild speculation about Vince Cable as the alternative.

It is one of those peculiar permutations of coalition politics that George Osborne can consider himself very grateful to Lord Oakeshott, the Liberal Democrat peer and former Treasury spokesman, who has effectively called for the Chancellor to be sacked. Lord Oakeshott took to the airwaves (where he spends a considerable amount of his time) after the announcement of dire GDP data yesterday, to say that Osborne was performing as if on “work experience” and ought to be replaced by a more substantial figure. By that he meant Vince Cable, the business secretary, on whose behalf Oakeshott is often deemed to be speaking. Cable later on stirred the speculation further by suggesting immodestly that he “probably” would make a decent Chancellor, but this morning he publicly reined in his ambitions. He is a team player, he insisted, and Osborne leads the Treasury team.

There is, it has to be said, absolutely no chance of Cable being made Chancellor in this government. Really none at all. Zilch. The job would never go to a Lib Dem – its occupation by a Tory is part of the agreed fundamental architecture of the coalition. Cable will be lucky to stay in the cabinet at all in the next reshuffle. He has never been an ally of Nick Clegg in whose office he is seen as a grandstanding maverick and potential leadership threat. Even in opposition there was resentment of the way that Cable was held up as a mighty authority on economic matters – “St Vince” – poaching precious publicity from the leader. That feeling has since been exacerbated by a very personal irritation that Clegg has become the hated symbol of the u-turn on tuition fees, taking the full force of a vicious public and political backlash, when Cable ran the department that actually implemented the policy and yet escaped with hardly a scratch.

From the Tory point of view, Cable is a leftish fifth columnist. The recent revelation that he sends approving text messages to Ed Miliband will only reinforce the feeling among many Conservatives that the Business Secretary’s natural place is carping from the back benches.

But before the chatter about Cable started up, there were plenty of Tories willingly speculating about the need to move Osborne from the Treasury. Even quite loyal MPs were muttering about weaknesses in the heart of the machine and pointing accusing figures at Number 11 Downing Street. The charges are: the bungled budget, clumsy handling of the ensuing u-turns, suspicion that Osborne spends too much time in Number 10 plotting political attacks and not enough time running the economy, a broader feeling that there is no long-term strategy for winning an election other than hoping that Ed Miliband’s bubble bursts, over-reliance on short-term tricks and tactical manoeuvres, an obsessive personal animosity towards Ed Balls that is unseemly in one of the highest offices of state, a failure to develop a consistent message on what the government is doing to spur growth. There is a feeling on the Tory benches that Labour have been let back into the debate on the economy when they seemed wholly shut out of it a year ago.

In recent weeks I have heard William Hague, Michael Gove and Phillip Hammond all talked up by their fellow Tories as potential Chancellors. The surest way to kill that chatter is for a Lib Dem to pipe up and say Osborne should be sacked – and replaced with Vince, of all people.

There was never really any chance of Osborne being moved in the reshuffle. It would be an admission of economic failure on an epic scale and he is too close to Cameron. The Prime Minister is generally loyal to his friends – witness how hard it was for him to let go of Andy Coulson and how tenaciously he has clung to Jeremy Hunt. Of course in those cases there as an element of self-preservation. Losing high profile figures over phone hacking would have removed protective firewalls around Number 10. But it is also generally said of Cameron’s clubbable nature that he looks after his chums – which can, of course, be interpreted as a good a bad thing in politics depending on whether it is a mark of constancy or corruption. Cameron has ever fewer friends and Osborne is vital.

But it follows from that analysis that the Chancellor is practically unsackable. Yet he is also badly damaged and all those hostile whispers from his own side can’t be unwhispered. That leaves a feeling in Westminster at the start of the long summer recess that the Tory duamvirate’s strategy is essentially to build defences around the hole they are in and frantically keep digging.

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

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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.