The Boundary Commission is one of largest disenfranchisement projects in the history of British democracy. If the proposal comes into play, we could effectively become a one-party state, where blue rule becomes endemic and the welfare state is a distant dream. However, this might never happen. A long list of dramatis personae could stand in Theresa May’s way; from the disgruntled Tory MPs who may lose their seats, to a House of Lords with a penchant for rebellion. The Prime Minister is seemingly invincible at the moment, but there is a lingering sense of hubris hovering over her premiership.
Barrier one: An early election
There are several scenarios in which May would call for an early general election, either propelled by her or coerced into calling one from others. The Boundary Commission proposals are set to come before Parliament in 2018. If passed, they will be in place for the 2020 general election. However, if an early general election should be called before 2018, this would be on the basis of the old boundaries. The Coalition Government tried to regulate elections by setting a fixed term for Parliament, but there are still ways it could be dissolved.
Scenario 1 : May could call an early election before 2018. At the moment it would seem that the country is May’s for the taking. Labour is fractious, Ukip struggling with its identity and the Lib Dems are just about lifting their heads above the parapet. May could go deep into Labour territory and vanquish the purple threat of Ukip to the fringes of the right of the Conservative party.
Scenario 2 : May is pushed into an early general election because she is no longer able to hold the Tory party together over Europe. The dividing lines are already starting to emerge, with David Davis being overridden by for saying membership of the single market is improbable . She may be forced to go to the electorate to secure her own mandate. The election could also be an opportunity for May to fill the backbenches with Remainers to bolster her cause (presuming that she wants to stay in the single market).
Scenario 3 : Tension in the Tory Party over Europe becomes unbearable. May is forced out in a vote of no confidence. The party limps on with a caretaker leader and then is forced to go to go the country, as they are no longer able to keep the party together.
Scenario 4 : May manages to broker a deal in Autumn 2017 on Europe which matches her priorities. She is able to trigger Article 50 without parliamentary approval. However, if she does strike a deal, then she has to ask Parliament either to repeal or amend the European Communities Act, which voted to take us into the European union in 1972. If opposition parties and Tory rebels refused to do this, she would have no other choice but to go before the electorate.
Out of these scenarios, 1 is the least likely. The current polls are an indication of the honeymoon period of a new incumbent. At the moment it would seem that she has more like a 8-10 per cent lead over Labour, rather than the 12-13 per cent lead that some polls are producing. Still big, but not big enough. Fighting the general election on the new boundaries would also make it easier for her to win.
Scenarios 2-4 could all be probable. Fanatical Tory Brexit MPs combined with the majority of MPs who are Remainers is a toxic mix. It’s unlikely that both will get what they desire.
Barrier two: The House of Lords
In the last session of Parliament, there were 60 defeats by the House of Lords of Government legislation. Changes to parliamentary boundaries is not a financial bill, which the Lords have to pass. Therefore, it could technically be defeated by them. A proviso for situations such as these is the Salisbury Convention which sets out that if a piece of legislation occurs in the Party’s manifesto it must be passed by the House of Lords. The Conservative Manifesto clearly stated that it was intending to change the number of seats in parliament from 650 to 600.
Nevertheless, the House of Lords recently quashed proposals implied in the Conservative manifesto when they refused to pass legislation to cut tax credits. Though this policy was not explicitly stated in the Conservative Manifesto, the Government argued that this came under their now infamous promise to impose £12bn worth of welfare cuts. Labour and the Liberal Democrats currently have a majority in the House of Lords, and they seem in a ebullient mood, with plans to block May’s proposals on grammar schools.
How Tories would be respond to fallout of this would be fascinating. They are already irate with the Lords because of their conduct over tax credits. Lord Strathclyde undertook a review of the Lords for Cameron, recommending that “the House of Lords to ask the House of Commons to think again when a disagreement exists but gives the final say to the elected House of Commons” . Yet the Strathclyde’s review has stalled with stalwart right-wingers such as Bernard Jenkins rejecting the proposal. May could find herself in a bind.
Barrier three: Disgruntled Conservative MPs
Missives are starting to amass from rebel Conservatives because of what they see as an abandonment of Cameron’s modernising project. Nicky Morgan who was central to this project has asserted her disdain for May’s proposals on grammar schools. On top of this there are a set of ardent Remainers such as Dominic Grieve, who could become increasingly disenchanted with May capitulating to the right over her position on the single market.
There is also another faction in the Conservatives, who often overlap with the Remainers but percolate through all strands of the party. Matthew d’Ancona has called them the Runnymede Conservatives, afer the place where the Magna Carta was signed. These Tories see themselves as defenders of the civil liberties Magna Carta established. If May were to leave the European Court of Human Rights and replace it with a watered down Bill of Rights, they could then feel compelled to neuter the rest of her reign.
Finally, there are the Brexiters. They are a hardcore of 30 “bastards”, as John Major would refer to them, and 70 more who will come along for the ride. If they feel May is making too many concessions to the EU over freedom of movement, they may well pull the plug on legislation.
The Conservatives only have a working majority of 17, so these groups now have magnified status, and any moves in these factions could produce defeats for May. Number 10 can try to buy off all those disgruntled MPs who may lose their constituencies with promises of peerages, new seats etc. However the 10 Conservative MPs who are set to lose their seats may not fancy their chances in a newly-constructed marginal when they could have their old seat.
Corbyn and May have most to gain from the implementation of the Boundary Commission’s recommendations. The new arrangements could both ensure dominance in their desired electoral arena. For May, it brings the prospect of assured dominance over the political landscape. For Corbyn, it is a chance to purge the party in the name of democracy, without having to push through an overtly factional and divisive policy such as mandatory reselection. All three barriers; an early election, a House of Lords veto and disgruntled Conservative MP blocking the legislation could happen. The most probable would seem the last. On Wednesday, The World Tonight reported that numerous Conservatives MPs are questioning the legislation. There are many factions on both the left and the right of the Conservative party who are waiting for May to define herself. If she can hold the two factions together, she may achieve her prize of political omnipotence. If she doesn’t, she could find herself limping on in a lame duck administration whilst waiting for the vote of no confidence.
Sam Pallis is a writer and campaigner. Follow him on Twitter @SamPallis.