Crossing the boundary

Wasn't David Cameron nice to the DUP's Ian Paisley Jnr at prime minister's questions, today?

And he was not particularly confrontational towards the Scottish Nationalists either. I wonder if the niceness is due to something more than the PM's sunny nature. He might need the support of the smaller parties to get through the changes to parliamentary boundaries, which might make all the difference to Conservative prospects at the next election.

Compare and contrast his attitude with Nick Clegg's jibe at the Conservative Party chairman, Grant Shapps, at DPMQs, yesterday. Asked about Mr Shapps' reported comment that the Conservatives were still hoping to get the boundary changes, Mr Clegg responded with an acid little jibe, and what looks like a cast iron promise that his party, having seen Lords reform blocked, would not now support the boundary changes - and would vote against their coalition colleagues to stop them.

The Lib Dems - who were signed up to the boundary changes - are sure withdrawing their support is just revenge on the Conservatives who stymied Lords reform.

But it's only revenge if the Conservatives lose the vote.

Let's do the math: discount Mr Speaker, who only votes if the House is tied, and the five Sinn Fein MPs who don't take their seats at Westminster - and the Conservatives need to muster 323 votes to win.

At the moment, there are 304 Tory MPs (down one from the general election because of the resignation of Louise Mensch - and they may or may not hold the seat). But add in eight DUP MPs (regarded by the Conservatives as ideological allies), the six SNP MPs and three from Plaid Cymru - and that target begins to look attainable.

Then it all comes down to whether the other groupings and individuals can be swayed…the SDLP's three musketeers, independent Unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon, the Greens' Caroline Lucas and the Alliance Party's Naomi Long could all suddenly find the big parties being very nice to them.

But the key is the SNP - and one of their MPs told me today: "We're showing a bit of skirt at the moment; let's see what inducements are offered." Their support would not automatically bring their Plaid Cymru allies on board, not least because the review seems likely to cost them one of their three seats, and cut Welsh representation in Westminster by a quarter. But maybe an offer of greater powers for Cardiff might persuade them, plus the offer of a couple more Plaid peers to maintain their voice in Westminster?

Of course, the vote is not until next year, and plenty could happen before it arrived. A clutch of by-elections are due in the next few months and the grim reaper might decide to further alter the balance of the chamber.

The Conservatives would have to ensure that they delivered their entire parliamentary vote, and MPs whose seats would disappear under the Boundary Review could expect some serious arm twisting if they showed signs of putting their personal survival ahead of their party's electoral prospects - they could end up being barred from standing under the Tory banner.

Ultimately the result could depend on who was so ill they couldn't even be stretchered through the division lobbies. And if the departure of Louise Mensch results in a Tory defeat in Corby, the result could ultimately be a lost general election rather than just a by-election embarrassment.

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