Why the Tories' dream of a majority could finally end today

The likely defeat of the boundary changes by Labour and the Lib Dems means the Tories will need a lead of seven points to win a majority in 2015.

Update: MPs have voted in favour of delaying the boundary changes to 2018 by 334 to 292. 

Labour, the Lib Dems, the nationalist parties and at least four Conservatives (David Davis, Philip Davies, Richard Shepherd and John Baron) voted in favour of the rebel amendment. 

 

Barring any last-minute upset, the Conservatives' proposed boundary changes will finally receive their last rites in the Commons this afternoon. MPs will vote on a Labour amendment to delay the reforms until 2018 and, without the support of the Lib Dems, who will fulfil their pledge to oppose the changes in revenge for the abandonment of House of Lords reform, there is no hope of the Tories preventing defeat. 

In addition to Labour and the Lib Dems, at least two Conservative MPs - Glyn Davies and Philip Davies - are likely to rebel, with David Davis also considering voting against the changes (an assortment of rebels that suggests the whips should also keep a close eye on David Davies). Thus, even if the Tories succeed in winning the support of the eight DUP MPs (the SNP is expected to abstain), they will be well short of the numbers needed to save the reforms. As David Cameron's official spokesman delicately put it yesterday, "clearly, from the Prime Minister's perspective, the arithmetic looks pretty difficult". 

The defeat of the changes means it will be all but impossible for the Conservatives to win a majority in 2015. Under the existing boundaries, and assuming a Lib Dem vote of around 15 per cent, the Tories require a lead of seven points to win an overall majority, compared to a lead of four points under the new boundaries. Labour, by contrast, needs a lead of just one point to win a majority under the current system, compared to a lead of three points under the new boundaries. 

The party's advantage is partly due to differential constituency sizes, a factor that the boundary changes, which would have fixed constituency sizes at plus or minus five per cent of 76,000 voters, were designed to mitigate. Since Labour tends to perform best in smaller, urban seats, while the Tories perform best in larger, rural seats, it takes an average of 33,470 votes to elect a Labour MP, compared to an average of 35,030 to elect a Conservative one (and 119,944 to elect a Lib Dem, which is why they bang on about electoral reform). 

But even with the boundary changes, Miliband's party would still have enjoyed a significant advantage over its opponents. This is because the the electoral bias towards Labour owes more to differential turnout (fewer people tend to vote in Labour constituencies) and regional factors (the Tory vote is poorly distributed) than it does to unequal constituencies. As a report by the University of Plymouth concluded: "The geography of each party's support base is much more important, so changes in the redistribution procedure are unlikely to have a substantial impact and remove the significant disadvantage currently suffered by the Conservative Party."

By 2015, as the Tories struggle to even remain the single largest party (something that will require a lead of four points), the more reflective Conservative MPs might ask themselves whether it was worth sacrificing the boundary changes for the sake of preventing an elected House of Lords. When I interviewed former Conservative education secretary Kenneth Baker earlier this month, he told me that he regarded Cameron's failure to secure the boundary changes as his "biggest mistake". ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie has described the defeat of the reforms as the Tories' "worst single electoral setback since Black Wednesday". 

Note the date - 29 January 2013 - it may well be remembered as the day that the Tories' hopes of outright victory in 2015 finally ended. 

Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers will vote against each other for the first time since the coalition was formed when parliament votes on the boundary changes later today. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

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

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