Why the Tories are happy for Clegg to bash them

The Conservatives recognise that a revival in Lib Dem support is crucial to their electoral success.

A slightly unusual thing happened at Deputy Prime Minister's questions today. Nick Clegg had a go at the Tories. This in itself is not as unusual as many readers of The Staggers might think (nor as common as many Lib Dems would like) but what was remarkable was the target. Not a ragtag of Tory backbenchers (though the ever-reliable Peter Bone teed it up for him beautifully), but the Conservative chairman, Grant Shapps. In response to rumours that the Tories think the Lib Dems will do a "cash-for-boundaries" deal, Nick quipped:

I've already read in the press, reports that the chairman of the Conservative Party wishes to strike a deal with us on boundaries in return for a party funding deal. I suppose, Mr Speaker, finally that’s a get rich quick scheme that he’s proud to put his name to!

So, why does Nick suddenly feel able not only to say a confident "no" to proposed Tory policy, like welfare cuts, but also to start openly mocking his cabinet colleagues?

Well, partly it must be irresistible at the moment. Given the list of Conservatives in the cabinet whose position has appeared untenable at various points in the last few months – Jeremy Hunt, Andrew Mitchell, Shapps, and now Justine Greening – it must be like shooting fish in a barrel. And, partly, we are now more than halfway through the current Parliament, and the Richard Reeves positioning strategy moves from Phase A to Phase B (just 30 months too late, but, still, we’re there now).

But it's also because the Tories probably know that the received wisdom that a collapse in the Lib Dem vote benefits them is wrong. As this excellent analysis shows, such an outcome is far more likely to benefit Labour. So, bizarrely, the Tories probably need to allow the Lib Dems to do a little better in the polls if they are to stand any chance of winning a majority at the next election. Therefore, they have to take some poking from their coalition partners with a certain stoicism. It’s a short term loss for a long-term gain.

It also puts Labour in a tight spot strategically – spend the next two years bashing the Lib Dems and there’s far more chance of an electoral reward at the ballot box. But should, having made a lot of enemies in the Lib Dem camp, they fail to get over the line – what then?

For now, the Tories know that, in the absence of the boundary changes, their best hope for electoral success lies in a revival in Lib Dem fortunes. They’re going to have to take a lot more Grant Shapps jokes from their coalition partners in the coming months.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference.

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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.