Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Lib Dems may need to leave the government to stop the boundary changes

Now it is clear that Cameron is not going to be able to get enough of his backbenchers to support Lords reform there is lots of talk about how the quid pro quo for this will be the Lib Dems blocking the boundary changes. There is also talk about how the precise wording of the coalition agreement does not commit the Lib Dems to vote for the changes.

Even though it is dressed up in the language of principle, the argument essentially goes "You didn't deliver the change we wanted so we won't deliver the change you want.".

In some ways this is fair enough. The manner in which some Conservative MPs have parsed the coalition agreement to find a Clintonesque way of wriggling out of the spirit of the commitment to Lords reform has been low politicking at its worst. As a supporter of Lords reform (albeit one who could see a good argument for voluntarily delaying change ourselves) I would find some satisfaction in seeing the boundary changes voted down.

There is a problem with this idea though. Cameron really did try to get Lords reform through. He imposed a 3 line whip on his party to vote for the bill and the timetable. It failed because too many of his non-payroll MPs were prepared to vote against it (which is why the timetable motion was withdrawn as it was clear the government would lose).

If Clegg was to impose a 3 line whip on the vote for the boundary changes then straight away the Lib Dem payroll vote of 22 would have to support the changes (or resign from the government). I also suspect a number of backbench Lib Dems would either abstain or vote with the government. Some would doubtless rebel but it would not be enough to stop the changes*.

So the only way the Lib Dems could be sure of defeating the boundary changes would be to actually ensure all of their MPs voted against them. And I cannot see a realistic way that this could happen without triggering a chain of events that would lead to the end of the coalition.

It comes down to a matter of mathematics. The Conservative backbenchers can block legislation even if the government votes for it. The Lib Dems cannot do this. They don't have enough MPs.

I know that Cameron is determined to get this change through. Clegg cannot block it without making his entire party vote against it. We will soon reach the first (and probably last) impasse of the coalition sooner than most people thought.

*I am aware that a number of backbench Conservative MPs also do not want these changes to go through. It is possible for a scenario to play out where Clegg whips the Lib Dem payroll vote to vote for the changes but with a nod and a wink licenses his backbenchers to vote against leaving only a few Tory rebels required to torpedo the changes. The big problem with this though is not just that it would be blatantly obvious what had happened (which it would) but that I suspect Cameron has already war gamed this scenario. Now that the Lords reforms are dead, he has a big patronage carrot to offer any wavering MPs from his side. For this reason, I would suggest such a gambit on Clegg's part would fail. And I think he knows it.


John Moss said...

I think it is also clear from the Coalition Agreement that the commitment to the AV Referendum and Boundary Changes was a firm one (a Bill, whipped in both houses). Contrast that with a much weaker commitment to bring forward proposals on Lords Reform.

Your wider point is correct though. Lib-Dems would have to leave the Coalition if they reneged on boundary changes. Whilst the Conservatives might struggle on until the next Budget, the chances are we get a General Election and the Lib-Dems lose 30 seats.

Stephen Glenn said...

Except John there are not enough non-Conservative votes to call a General Election under the Fixed Parliament Act regulations and therefore unless the Conservatives do a vote of no confidence in themselves that will not happen.

Plus the way the opinion polls currently stand the Conservatives would also fail to be the largest party losing seats yourself.

Anonymous said...

Actually, would it be enough even if all the Lib Dem MPs voted against?

Interestingly, the SNP are expecting to gain from the boundary changes. I don't know what the attitude of the Unionists is, but if they were in support and the Tories remained solid, then it would take practically every other MP in the House to defeat the measure.

Certainly it's a mistake to think that the Lib Dems alone can decide to scuttle the changes. It would also depend on the actions of practically all the other minor parties.

Anonymous said...

In 1969, the Labour Home Secretary placed Orders implementing Boundary Commission recommendations before the House of Commons, as he was required to do by statute, and the Labour government then used its majority to defeat those same Orders.

It is entirely possible for the coalition government to place the Orders before the House of Commons, in order to fulfill the statutory requirement, but for the coalition government to take no position on whether the Orders should be passed. Recall that this is a coalition, and its decisions require the consent of both coalition partners.

A quick internet search reveals that the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and DUP all vigorously opposed the boundary changes.