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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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