Ukip leader Nigel Farage speaks to a journalist in Rochester on November 21, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories have ruled out a deal with Ukip - and they're right to do so

The Conservatives are right to deny the toxic suggestion that they would shack up with Farage. 

Conservative chairman Grant Shapps's speech this morning was designed to put the spotlight on "30 days of Labour chaos". But it is his comments on Ukip that have attracted most attention. Asked whether he could rule out a coalition with the party in the event of a hung parliament, he replied: "I can rule out - We are not going to do pacts and deals with Ukip".  Shapps's unambiguous response contrasts with David Cameron's equivocation earlier this month ("I don’t want pacts or deals with anybody," was his carefully worded response). But Conservative sources have confirmed that this was not a slip of the tongue: they really are ruling out any arrangement with Ukip (be it a coalition or a confidence and supply agreement). 

For several reasons, they are right to do so. First, the earlier refusal to rule out a deal with Ukip had the potential to inflict further damage on an already tarnished Conservative brand. While support for Nigel Farage's party has surged since 2010 (when it polled just three per cent), it remains toxic to many voters, not least those the Tories need to win over if they are ever to win a majority again. Polling has consistently shown, for instance, that ethnic minority voters - just 16 per cent of whom voted Conservative in 2010 -  have an understandably negative view of Ukip. YouGov last year found that a quarter of current Conservative supporters wouldn’t vote for the party if it entered a pact with Ukip, with 5 per cent switching to Labour, 4 per cent to the Lib Dems and 16 per cent abstaining. In the seats that the Tories gained from Labour and the Lib Dems in 2010, and those they need to gain in 2015, the prospect of a Tory-Ukip deal threatened to repel centrist and liberal voters. 

Second, the Tories have recently derided Labour over its refusal to rule out a deal with the SNP, seeking to portray Ed Miliband as "weak" and "desperate". It is far harder to level these charges if Labour can reply in turn that Cameron is preparing to shack up with Farage. The rejection of a pact enhances the rhetorical boast that the Tories are unremittingly focused on winning a majority. 

Finally, the chance of Ukip holding the balance of power in a hung parliament is smaller than often implied. Even if it makes five gains (a credible result), the party will still have significantly fewer MPs than the Lib Dems and the SNP (who stand to make far greater gains), and perhaps fewer than the DUP.

The cost of not ruling out a deal with Ukip is almost certainly greater than the cost of doing so. The Tories are right to have spoken with conviction today. 

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.