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

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage