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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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