The Liberal Democrats hold the key to boundary reform – and therefore the next election
The Cameroons believe they have come up with a policy that will deliver at least 20 more Tory seats at the next election. No. 10 is, understandably, determined to get this measure through: nothing else promises them anything like the same electoral dividend. But this silver bullet isn’t a tax cut or a new approach to Europe. It is a set of changes to the constituency boundaries.
This boundary review has been designed to limit the pro-Labour bias in the Westminster electoral system. It reduces the number of parliamentary seats from 650 to 600, which notionally reduces the number of Labour MPs by 28.
If its recommendations are enacted, the effect on British politics would be dramatic. The pollster Anthony Wells calculates that if an election were held today on the current boundaries, Labour would be two seats short of an overall majority. When you consider that there are five Sinn Fein members who don’t take their seats, that translates into a majority of sitting MPs. If, however, the election were held on the proposed new boundaries, the Tories would be two short of an overall majority. This would allow them to govern alone if they wanted.
Even under the new system, Labour would still have an advantage. The Tories would need, assuming a uniform national swing, to be seven points ahead of Labour to win an overall majority. At the last election, however, they needed a double-digit lead to achieve a majority.
But the Prime Minister now faces a growing risk that the reform will fall victim to the tensions within the coalition. The last election convinced Cameron and his circle that, under the current system, it is almost impossible for the Conservatives to win outright. This explains why boundary changes featured prominently in the coalition agreement. In a straightforward quid pro quo, the two parties agreed that the government would hold a referendum on the alternative vote, which the Liberal Democrats wanted, and ask the boundary commission to conduct a review along lines that suited the Tories.
But the Liberal Democrats, still bruised by what they see as Cameron’s breach of faith during the AV referendum campaign, are now insisting that the boundaries and Lords reform are part of a package. Nick
The House of Lords has realised that two can play the obstruction game
Clegg conceded to the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill on Monday that ‘there is no link between these elements’. Yet when I bumped into one of his senior advisers just two hours later, it was made clear that, in Clegg’s head, the link is very strong indeed. If Lords reform does not go through, the Lib Dems would not feel obliged to support the new Tory-friendly boundaries. Without Liberal Democrat votes, it would be difficult to get this electoral reform — which the Labour party detests, for obvious reasons — through the Commons.
Initially, the Cameroons’ attitude was to accept Lords reform. In private, the Prime Minister said that a small elected element in the Upper Chamber was not too high a price to pay. Others in Downing Street have been more direct. When I challenged
‘Well that’s that, then— the personal trainer will have to go.’
a Cameron ally about the huge amount of parliamentary time any attempt to reform the Lords would take, the answer was ‘20 days of debate for 20 seats’.
But there is another risk: that the House of Lords itself may disrupt the government’s plans. The peers of the realm have realised that two can play the obstruction game. Age has not dimmed their instinct for self-preservation. They are muttering that if the coalition proceeds with Lords reform, the upper chamber will vote down the new boundaries for the Commons.
This is not an idle threat. The boundary changes have to pass through both houses. This is a rare example of the government having no power to overrule the upper house using the Parliament Act. If the Lords won’t back them, Cameron will have to fight the next election on the old Labour-friendly boundaries.
Those close to the Prime Minister fume that it would be ‘disgraceful for the Lords to interfere with boundaries for elections to the Commons’. But if the coalition really is prepared to use the Parliament Act to override objections to its plans for the second chamber, then it can hardly expect the Lords to respect constitutional convention in return.
Some Tories would not be too upset if the next election were fought using the existing constituencies. One Cabinet minister complains that ‘every time there’s a boundary review, we cock it up. The one after 1992 was meant to give us a boost and ended up giving Labour a whole load of seats.’ He accuses Tory HQ of being far too optimistic about how many seats they will gain under the new system. He points out that just under a third of the supposed Tory gains are meant to be in London, where population shifts are moving against the party so fast that any advantage probably will have disappeared by 2015. Moreover, these calculations are all based on past voter behaviour; they don’t take into account that a large number of left-wing Liberal Democrat voters have now moved to Labour.
There is also some grumbling on the back benches about the proposed changes. this is not surprising, since to create more winnable seats for the Tories you need to make their existing ones less safe. But the Tory high command remains convinced that it must pass the changes. The result of the next election may well hang on whether they can.
the spectator | 3 march 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk Charles Moore
Although I like and admire Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun, I feel that his article about the wickedness of arresting journalists at dawn, published two weeks ago, marked that moment which always comes during a scandal when the trade under attack fails to ‘get it’. The same happened with those MPs who protested at the exposure of their expenses, or with Bob Diamond of Barclays telling a Commons committee that ‘the time for remorse is over’. We in the media are just as powerful in our way as are MPs or bankers in theirs, and just as abusive of our power. We, collectively, have created a climate in which everyone wants to put down the mighty from their seats. We are the mighty too. How are the mighty fallen before the evidence of the Leveson inquiry. We must take the current humiliation. Similar thoughts apply even to the death of Marie Colvin, the war reporter. She was indeed as brave, unselfpitying and fun as the tributes have said, but there is a preposterous vanity in the media calls for the overthrow of the Assad regime because of her fate. If it should be overthrown, it is because of the evil it visits on its own people, not because of what it does to our tribe.
Earlier this week, I was emailed and then telephoned by a journalist from a famous American television network. She was trying to get hold of a well-known but elusive resident of this country and wanted my help. I explained that I would not give her any direct contact, but would send her the email of the person’s public affairs adviser. She would not take this for an answer and kept on trying to ask me more questions. Eventually, I said, ‘Look, I think you’re being a bit pushy. I don’t know you. I’ll give you the adviser’s email, but that’s all.’ After saying goodbye, I put the phone down. The eager networker immediately sent me an email: ‘I don’t work for some small time newspaper or TV channel, I work for the largest news network in American [sic] … and we have extremely high ethical standards, when I say the information I’m gathering is for background I mean it.’ I wanted to write back to say that I didn’t for a moment doubt her ethical standards,
only her manners. But such an answer, I realised just in time, would itself be rude, so I silently fumed instead.
Until I heard about Rebekah Brooks, I had not known of the delightful English custom that ex-editors are lent ex-police horses, so that, old hacks together, they can amble round the country lanes enjoying the autumn of their days. No doubt the current curse of ‘extremely high ethical standards’ will incline Bernard Hogan-Howe, the excellent new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, to drop this harmless perk, but I should like to remind him that I too am an ex-editor, and I have not yet received my traditional reward. If he wants to keep in with this column, he will know exactly what to do.
After the Daily Telegraph exposed the practice of abortions on the illegal grounds of sex selection last week, the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, said that such selection was ‘morally repugnant’. In the same week, a nightclub bouncer, Carl Whant, was sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment for the murder and rape of a pregnant teenager, and for ‘child destruction’, since the baby she was carrying died. Mr Lansley was right, and the sentence seems justified. But it is hard to understand why it is repugnant to abort because of sex but fine to do so because of potential disability or mental handicap. Whant is in prison, but thousands of abortionists, admittedly acting by consent and at an earlier stage of pregnancy, are committing a child destruction so extensive that it accounted in 2010 for 21 per cent of all conceptions in England and Wales. How much longer can people pretend that human rights, endlessly promoted in other spheres, apply so selectively to humans in the womb?
Whatever Eric Joyce MP may or may not have done in the Strangers’ Bar of the House of Commons, he surely did not ‘head-butt’ anyone. The word ‘butt’ assumes the word ‘head’ and so ‘head-butt’ is tautological. Another phrase like this, much used, is ‘potential danger’. Is there any other form of danger?
Being a top-rate taxpayer, I read the report that we (1 per cent of the whole income-tax-paying population) contribute 28 per cent of the total revenue with mixed feelings. First, there is the sense of quiet pride at being able to perform this service. Then there is annoyance at the ingratitude of the wider population, who constantly think that ‘the rich’ are getting off lightly, when in fact this is true only of the super-rich who have clever international schemes rather than of us mere high earners, who now work about 60 per cent of our time on the public’s behalf. Finally, there is fear that this statistic will be misinterpreted. Some leveller will conclude that if a mere 308,000 people can pay more than a quarter of the total exacted from 30 million, why not raise it to a half? I suspect that the dizzying amount that the few currently give to the many (or rather, to the government, which then loses most of it) is just now reaching a historic high. The old tax disincentives which nearly killed off all prosperity in the 1970s are coming back. Soon the amount collected will fall. Certainly this pip is squeaking.
Sir James Cayzer, who died this week, was a generous and funny man. He once told me: ‘Never buy a Rolls Royce [he had about a dozen]. They are a nightmare.’ I have always followed this advice, and never regretted it. I hereby pass it on to millions who might otherwise go astray.
The latest entry for Radio Twee vacuity this week is Clemency Burton-Hill on a Bach cantata: ‘Bach’s message is “Do unto others as you would have them do to you”, which sounds like an excellent idea.’ Clever old Bach! No mention that Jesus said it first (Luke 6:31).
the spectator | 3 march 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk