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

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit