One of the amusing inclusions in yesterday’s otherwise anodyne Mid-Term review document was the promise that the government ‘will provide for a vote in the House of Commons on the Boundary Commission’s proposals for changes to constituencies’. If yesterday was a renewing of vows, some of them have been rather watered down since the Coalition Agreement, as its pledge for legislation for providing for fewer and more equal-sized constituencies has now simply become a ‘vote’.
Today at Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions, Chloe Smith was quizzed by opposition MPs on whether the government might just drop the boundary changes. She said:
‘The boundary commissions are continuing with the boundary review in accordance with the legislation which requires them to report in October 2013.’
She then added:
‘I think the parties within the Government have made their positions clear on that matter and if I may quote the Prime Minister from yesterday, there will be a vote, it will take place, and I suppose that is that.’
That vote could come very soon. The Electoral Registration and Administration Bill returns to the House of Lords in committee stage next week, and the amendment that delayed its passage (and may have finally tipped the balance for Lord Strathclyde) will be debated by peers. That amendment, from Labour’s Lord Hart and backed by Lib Dem Lord Rennard, will delay the changes until 2018. I understand that while the Lib Dem support for the amendment didn’t come from the Lib Dem leadership, those around Nick Clegg accept that its success would be a very convenient way of stopping the boundaries going forward. Once approved by the Lords, the amendment would then go down to the Commons for consideration of amendments, or ping pong. At that stage, the Lib Dems would have the opportunity to vote against the reforms in a division.
I’ve examined the effects of this rebellion here, but it’s worth remembering that only a few months ago, Tories were still giving pretty confident briefings that either ‘something would turn up’ in what one minister described to me as a ‘Black Swan moment’ to distract the Lib Dems from their revenge, or that they would, in the event, be able to cobble together support from minor parties in the Commons to squeeze the changes into legislation. Those who I’ve spoken to this morning aren’t confident enough to bet more than the small change rattling around in their pockets on that happening now, although they still refuse to fully accept that the Black Swan is dead.
P.S. The other problem with a cobbling together strategy is that the Tories can no longer have faith that all their own MPs will support the changes. As I reported on Coffee House over Christmas, one has already gone public with his plans to rebel.