Seats dispute goes beyond a boundary


Did you wake this morning worried about the size of MPs' constituencies?

Did you gulp your cornflakes fretting that the House of Commons is too big? Did you brood on your way to work about when MPs should vote on planned boundary changes? Did you agonise at your desk over delays to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill?

No, I don't suppose you did. But peers in the House of Lords did. Not for them the nail-biter over the water to choose the most important man in the world. No, their Lordships chose to debate the arcanery of constituency boundaries.

If it sounds boring, that is because it is. But bear with me. This story is important and goes to the heart and future of your coalition government.

It runs like this. Last year Parliament passed the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act. Among other things, this would reduce the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600 seats and redraw the parliamentary boundaries.


The act stipulated that once various commissioners had drawn up their new constituency boundaries, Parliament would sign them off in a final vote. That vote is scheduled for 2014.

Once upon a time the Lib Dems supported boundary changes. They signed up to the coalition agreement which demanded "the creation of fewer and more equal-sized constituencies". But after the Conservatives refused to support their plans to reform the House of Lords, the Lib Dems changed their tune. Nick Clegg is now firmly opposed to boundary changes and has said he will vote against them in 2014.

So far, so good. Here comes the twist.

In the last few weeks, Labour peers in the House of Lords introduced an amendment to another piece of legislation that would delay that boundary vote until 2018.

And it is an amendment that the Lib Dems have chosen to back, an amendment that the Conservative part of the government is now fighting hard to keep from the floor of the House of Lords.

It all came to a head in the Lords today when Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative leader there, told peers why he had postponed the Electoral Registration Bill for a second time. He argued that the Lords' clerks had made clear that the Labour amendment on boundary changes was inadmissible because it had nothing to do with voter registration. His counterpart for Labour, Lady Royall, accused him of subverting democracy.

Now if you followed all that without needing a strong drink, more power to your elbow.

The bottom line is this. Unless David Cameron and Nick Clegg do a deal and defuse the row, their government can delay a vote on the issue only for so long. At some point peers will get the chance to vote on whether to delay changes to Parliament's boundaries. And at that point the coalition government will come to a rather interesting juncture.

Thus far the coalition parties have finessed their differences by fudge, abstention, and creative ambiguity. But this will be the first time that Liberal Democrat ministers will be in a position where they may be voting against ministers with whom they form a government. They would be voting on the instruction of the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, against David Cameron's official policy.

The Lib Dems insist that they would not be voting against government policy because they claim there is no government policy. They insist that this stand-off would be a one-off.

In the past, government ministers who vote against the government have always resigned. But few expect that this time.

"You could shrug your shoulders," says one Conservative member of the cabinet. "Or you could jump and down at the constitutional outrage and demand an inquiry by the cabinet secretary."

That probably won't happen. But, for the first time in this coalition government, it looks as if some time soon Liberal Democrat ministers will vote against Conservative ministers. A new constitutional line will have been crossed and our governing parties will take another step further apart.

James Landale Article written by James Landale James Landale Deputy political editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    50 less MPs is NOT a good thing. It gives the PM and the Cabinet more power to force through stuff in Parliament.

    constituencies are not the same size because rural and urban divide. City people are part of a different community, no point forcing them into a tory voting rural seat

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Is it BBC policy that any article about constitutional reform should be prefaced with an apology for how dull the subject is (and occasionally asking to be excused for their own interest).
    Considering the loss of trust in our institutions, changing the systems that consistently produces poor outcomes should be just as interesting as changing the people who deliver it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Maybe this is LibDem payback for the ridiculous AV referendum which no-one actually wanted. Naively the LibDems agreed not realising it would be slaughtered. They should have stuck to their guns on PR. FPTP will produce unfair overall results whether there are equal constituencies or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I always thought the Lords went their own way anyway, so why the stamping of feet? The 'Other Place' will ignore them and do something completely different. Lady Royall complains about democracy being frustrated! She jests, this is the unreformed and unelected Lords so, unless they are, what's boundary changes to them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Is it true that the new chairman of the Conservative and Unionist Party, with his three names, gets 3 votes in all elections? If so, it would be helpful, to prevent the party meltdown at the next general election if this could be extended to all potential supporters.
    Which name is he using this week, I need to write, in order that I can seek clarification?


Comments 5 of 23



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