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Can boundary changes save the Conservatives?

The proposed boundary changes would make the parliamentary arithmetic more comfortable for the Tories – but they will struggle to pass them. 

Can the Conservatives win a majority just by waiting? Although the economy looks pre-recessional and the party is split on a number of issues, they have an ace in the hole: boundary changes, which will reduce the number of constituencies by 50 to 600 and make them all the same size, advantaging the Tories.

The final proposals for these changes are set to be completed in mid-2018, with a parliamentary vote in the autumn.

Although the impact of boundary changes can be overstated, they do hurt Labour slightly, but the important part there is the word “slightly”. On current boundaries, Labour needs a swing of 1 per cent from the Conservatives to gain 30 seats and be able to form a comfortable minority government. The Conservatives, in contrast, need a swing of just 1 per cent from Labour to gain 25 seats, and with that, regain their Commons majority. After boundary changes, the Tories need a 0.75 per cent swing and Labour a 1.25 per cent swing to achieve the same result.

But in a close election like the last one, every 0.25 counts. Electoral Calculus’ Martin Baxter has run the figures through the new boundaries, and had the last contest been fought on them, the result would have looked a bit like this:

The Conservatives would have got 298 seats, down 20 from the 318 they actually won last month.

Labour would have got 245 seats, down 17 from 262.

The SNP would have got 32 seats, down just three from 35.

The Liberal Democrats would have got seven seats, down five from 12.

The Greens would lose their sole seat of Brighton Pavilion, and the biggest loser would be Plaid Cymru, which would have got just one seat, down three from four.

In Northern Ireland, the DUP would have lost three seats, with just seven, while Sinn Féin would have been the largest party in Northern Ireland, up two to nine seats.

So all in all, you might think, a lot of fuss about nothing. The Conservatives would have gone from being seven seats short of a majority in a parliament of 650 to two seats in a parliament of 600. But the big, big difference is that once you deduct Sinn Féin’s seats from the total – remember that this party does not take its seats at Westminster – the Conservatives would actually have a working majority of 20 seats.

So the Conservatives just have to wait until they can pass through new boundaries in 2018, right? The difficulty is that passing boundary changes has always been trickier than it looks, because it is good for the Conservative Party but bad for individual Tory MPs. The party has a policy of “No Conservative left behind” – no MP who loses a seat through boundary changes will not be given an alternative one to fight at the election.

But the difficulty is that this was a much more attractive offer when Conservative MPs thought they would be switching a Conservative-held seat to a Labour-held one that would easily fall to the Tories – now it means persuading 17 Tory MPs to vote for unemployment, it’s a much less attractive offer now. (And Tory MPs were always a bit wary of switching their seats, particularly if they felt they had made an enemy of the party leadership.) Still harder a sell are their allies in the DUP, who would have to vote to not only reduce their own numbers at Westminster but also to add to the number of Sinn Féin seats.

So while boundary changes would slightly advantage the Conservatives were they to be implemented, it’s very difficult to see how any changes that reduce the number of MPs will pass the Commons without another election.

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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.