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.