Lawson's EU intervention is a preview of the Tory war to come

If, as Lawson predicts, Cameron's renegotiation strategy fails, the Tory party will suffer its worst split since the reform of the Corn Laws.

There is a significant body of opinion in the Conservative Party that will not be satisfied until David Cameron finally supports what they really crave: unilateral withdrawal from the EU. That group has now won its most significant recruit in the form of Nigel Lawson. In a 2,000 word essay in today's Times, the fomer Tory chancellor writes that the EU has become "a bureaucratic monstrosity" that imposes "substantial economic costs" on its members, and that "the case for exit is clear". Having voted in favour of membership in the 1975 referendum, Lawson declares that he will vote "out" in 2017. 

For Cameron, already struggling to fend off demands for an early EU "mandate referendum" after UKIP's performance in the county council elections, the intervention could not come at a worse time. The Prime Minister's strategy is premised on the belief that the UK can use the euro crisis to repatriate major powers from Brussels, but Lawson warns that he is doomed to fail. In the most damaging section of the piece, Thatcher's former chancellor writes "that that any changes that Mr Cameron — or, for that matter, Ed Miliband — is able to secure" will be "inconsequential". He points out that the changes that Harold Wilson (who similarly renegotiated Britain's membership before staging an in/out referendum) was able to secure were "so trivial that I doubt if anyone today can remember what they were". Cameron, he suggests, will do no better. 

Lawson's piece is a reminder of why the EU referendum has the potential to result in the biggest Conservative split since the reform of the Corn Laws. Around a third of Tory MPs (by Tim Montgomerie's estimate) are committed to supporting withdrawal, with more likely to join them if, as Lawson predicts, Cameron fails to secure significant concessions. Cabinet ministers, including Michael Gove and Eric Pickles, have already signalled that they will vote to leave the EU unless Britain's membership is substantially reformed.

The question that will again be put to Cameron is that which shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has continually asked: what percentage of your demands do you need to secure to support a Yes vote? 30 per cent, 50 per cent, 80 per cent? The PM's response is to say that no one goes into a negotiation "hoping and expecting to fail" but Lawson's pessimistic forecast will sharpen the debate. At a time when the Tories would do well to take Cameron's earlier advice to "stop banging on about Europe", the two Nigels - Farage and Lawson - have ensured that they will do little else. 

Former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson warns that any concessions David Cameron wins from the EU will be "inconsequential". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.