The Tories are ramping up the price of Clegg's boundary sabotage

Keeping the moribund review alive is part of a wider strategic game of coalition negotiation.

The Guardian has an interesting story this morning on Conservative attempts to resuscitate plans to redraw parliamentary boundaries. Unnamed Tory sources have suggested recruiting MPs from smaller parties – Democratic Unionists, Welsh and Scottish Nationalists – to help tip a vote in favour of redrawing constituency lines ahead of the next election, now that the Lib Dems have demonstrated their intent to kill the idea.

The other parties sound pretty tepid towards the idea, but they leave some room for crude pork-barrel bargaining. That is how small parties roll if they want to get things done.

Senior Tories are clearly desperate to salvage the boundary changes, which could make a difference of as many as 20 seats in their favour. But I sense that, amid all this frantic reaching down behind parliamentary sofa cushions for spare votes, there is a recognition that the 2015 general election will be conducted on existing boundaries. The candidate selection process is under way, strategists need to think about targeting resources, incumbents want to get on with the business of digging themselves in for a defensive battle.

So what is really going on here? Partly, the argument is about preserving the boundary review from total oblivion. A crafty manoeuvre in the Lords has meant that Labour and Lib Dem peers could kick the whole thing beyond 2018. Six years hence is as good as never in politics.

So the Tories will at least want to put pressure on Nick Clegg to find some compromise that means the changes can be at least settled in principle with implementation only deferred until just after 2015.* That way the Lib Dem leader gets to retain the glory of the bloody nose he inflicted on Cameron as revenge for the PM’s failure to secure reform the House of Lords but the Tories get the reforms they badly need for the long term onto the statute book.

Leaning on Clegg certainly seems to be the motive for leaking and briefing the Tories’ various plans to keep the boundary review alive. Not so long ago a far-fetched idea surfaced according to which the Lib Dems might reverse their opposition to the new constituencies in exchange for state funding of political parties. It was a non-starter and Clegg’s allies hosed it down with scorn. The whole purpose of floating it at all appeared to be to maximise Lib Dem discomfort and flush out some measure of their biddability.

After all, the Tories have been in coalition for long enough to know the Lib Dems are up for negotiation on most things. Downing Steet may initially have underestimated Clegg’s determination to retaliate over Lords reform but they know there will be other things he wants and things he needs to show his party and his country as prizes. The Tories must also know, however, that it would take some quite spectacular policy bauble - as yet unimagined - to permit Clegg to turn around and say, on second (technically third) thoughts, he is backing the boundary changes again.

There are parallel policy negotiations and horse trades going on all the time. In the run-up to the Autumn Statement – a mini-review of spending priorities due on 5 December – those talks are getting more urgent and heated. It is worth noting, in that context, that one effect of briefing that the boundary changes are not yet dead is to remind everyone of their importance to the Tories and, by extension, the heavy penalty Clegg has inflicted for the loss of his precious elected Senate. In other words, these stories and rumours about boundary deals ramp up the sense of Tory grievance, which is one way to shift the balance of power in various other negotiations. "Sorry Nick", say Cameron and Osborne. "But you hit us so hard on that boundary changes thing, you’re not seriously going to kick up a fuss over these welfare cuts/pesky windmills etc. are you? Be reasonable!"

I don’t doubt that the Cameron and Osborne are determined to reform parliamentary boundaries. Nor do I doubt that they’d like it to happen in time for the next election. It won’t and they must know as much. They can, however, make absolutely sure the Lib Dems know that, in smashing this most precious Tory policy, they have used up a very large chunk of their coalition bargaining chips and are in no position to come asking for policy favours.

*This distinction is a bit of a red herring as it transpires. See first comment below.

Update: A senior Lib Dem source has been in touch.

 

Nick Clegg pledged to veto the proposed boundary changes after David Cameron abandoned plans for House of Lords reform. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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