Reading the signs

Here's an early indicator of the result of tonight's big Commons vote on constituency boundaries: are the Welsh Conservatives there?

If the Conservatives think that there's even a minimal chance that the attempt to postpone the boundary review can be defeated, any Conservative who goes AWOL will be in deep, deep, career-ending trouble.

If, on the other hand, the review looks doomed anyway, why make MPs in marginal seats troop through the lobbies to vote in a way that damages their election prospects?

The vote is on a Lords amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, postponing the boundary changes needed to reduce the number of MPs to 600 and equalise constituency electorates. And most of the eight Welsh Tories have qualms about voting for a measure which will reduce Welsh representation in Westminster, and know that their vote would be used in evidence against them. So there is a reason to let them off the hook, if there's no prospect of winning the vote - hence if the Welsh Conservatives are there, it's going to be tight.

And my soundings this morning suggest there is no prospect of the Conservatives corralling enough votes from minority parties to outvote the combined forces of Labour and the Lib Dems.

Interestingly, the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley, has apparently told his troops that the boundaries measure might be resurrected in some way, later on; but that seems a stretch to me. Having reneged on their Coalition agreement commitment to vote through the boundary changes, the Lib Dems would look pretty silly if they u-turned on their u-turn.

Perhaps they may take a hit for failing to back the principle of equalising constituencies, but I doubt the issue will resonate much beyond Westminster. And they will certainly have to expect fallout from their rather cross coalition colleagues.

But they do have a direct strategic interest in keeping the next election as tight as possible (leaving aside the baleful effect of the boundary changes on a number of their MPs) because it maximises their chance of a hung parliament in 2015 and leverage over the next government.

There will be a flip side to the Tory angst their vote will generate: a thaw in relations with Labour. The joke doing the rounds in Portcullis House today is that this shouldn't be thought of as a vote on boundaries at all, but as a paving bill for an Ed-Vince partnership to take over from Nick 'n Dave.

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