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Will Brexit kill the Boundary Review?

I’m breaking that rule, again. You know, the one forbidding ventures into the realm of political predictions. Perhaps the recent foray into long range forecasting has empowered me to speak about matters in the nearer term. So here it is: the redrawing of constituency boundaries isn’t going to happen. Okay, let me rephrase that, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that the government are going to follow through. Bold claim, but what’s the basis for it?

Look at the chaos embroiling Theresa May’s government. Brexit was and is a tricky proposition, and by stupidly aiming for the worst kind on offer her government is unnecessarily multiplying problems for itself. Determined to be the super-toughest on immigration, May is determined that there is no way UKIP can outflank them on the right ever again. Yes – and just when you thought Tory leaders had stopped tilting to this dysfunctional bunch of has-beens, May carries on the tradition established by her predecessor. As such, not only is she colliding with the reality-facing sections of her backbenches over guarantees for EU residents, but this foolishness is imperilling the unity of the UK, again. Nicola Sturgeon has rattled the cage of a summer 2018 independence referendum, and the ongoing deadlock over the Northern Ireland executive – plus questions marks over the border and the overdue decaying of Loyalism there – puts the possibility of a united Ireland on the feasibility list. If either of these come to pass and the government carelessly loses a part of the UK, it’s curtains for the Prime Minister.

Apart from that, our old friend, alleged Conservative election fraud during 2015 is making menacing forays back into the front and centre of Westminster politics. The emergence of running the Thanet campaign full-time in a clear breach of civil service rules, and now Grant Shapps weighing in to confirm the allegations … oh, what a lovely mess! The pressure will be on the CPS to not take matters further once police investigations are completed, but if they do and charges levied lead to successful prosecutions, May could see her majority disappear mid-way through negotiations with Brussels. Not ideal.

Oh yes, and there is also the small matter of the National Insurance nightmare. An unforced error from the point of view of politics, it has merited front page coverage for a further day as well as being a main talking point during the Sunday politics shows. If only the bedroom tax or cuts to the disabled had commanded anywhere near as much concern. This occasioned another bout of acrimony but also, interestingly, May went out her way to defend the change. What that means is she cannot be seen to retreat from her position. She has made sure Hammond’s policy is her policy. Having seen down the grammar school rebellion, and opposition to cuts to disability benefit, she’ll try bulldozing this one. Retreat would make her look weak, and an indecisive profile on the eve of Brexit negotiations would be politically calamitous.

Still, May is by nature cautious. With chaos exploding around her, she wouldn’t welcome more distractions and “unnecessary” backbench rebellions. This, alas, is what redrawing constituency boundaries promises. With the commanding poll lead, Tories normally happy to vacate disappearing seats likely to be lost at the next election for a twilight in the Lords might now object. Even never-weres and never-will-bes entertain delusions of ascending to high office, so why abandon any chance of that? In short, a plan means another possible rebellion. The second problem is May cannot simply stuff the Lords with refugees from her benches. Given the boundary exercise is partially justified by reducing the cost of politics, it makes her vulnerable to charges of cronyist profligacy and venal self-interest, a badge her one nation image would be wise to avoid. The second problem, according to chatter at Westminster, is parliamentary time. There is a growing realisation in the Commons that the overdetermination of politics by Brexit will crowd out legislative time for everything else. The raft of legislation needed to establish a new trading relationship with the EU and the rest of the world, and the scrutiny this requires has been estimated to take up to 10 years. Yes, if this blog is still going in 2027 Brexit will be a regular feature, so there’s something to look forward to. Therefore the unnecessaries are going to get squeezed, and that could very well include the boundary review recommendations – especially so if, by then, Jeremy Corbyn still leads Labour and we languish behind in the polls.

I could be wrong. I sometimes am. But a reading of the situation suggests the long grass is the most likely home for whatever the Boundary Commission eventually comes up with.

One Comment

  1. Tim Pendry says:

    There is a lot of wish fulfilment in this piece … This is a possible ‘could’ but it contains so much that cannot be predicted through to next Tuesday, let alone the end of the Brexit cycle.

    The Tory Party has shown itself eminently aware of its own position on the lines of better hang together lest they be hanged together. The Article 50 triggering had a decent 48 majority at second reading. Even the articulate rebels in the debate (Soubry and Grieve) voted with the Government. The Lords proved irrelevant on the substance.

    The possible prosecutions over election expenses are a serious issue but it is too early to say what the outcome will be or whether a number of marginals will come up for re-election as mini-Brexit referenda – or if they do whether the Tories may not win them with increased majorities.

    The National Insurance issue (an undoubted blunder by Hammond) was resolved swiftly in ways that put Tory business and the white van on guard but did not threaten its allegiance to conservatism. You seem not to have noticed in your article that the Tories actually retreated on the fact and left he principle for discussion in their next manifesto!

    An alternative argument is that May is responsive to her own tribe and that Ministers simply have to make adjustments that square the real political tension here – not between a lack lustre and divided opposition and the Tory Government but between the Tories as managers of the State and the Tory Party in the Country.

    This is a return to an eighteenth century dynamic and the pattern is to let the Government get away with murder until it affects the class base of the Party. If it does, the Party strikes back, the Government adapts and more pressure is put on the interest groups that support the Opposition (aka ‘austerity’). This means pressure on people who are never going to vote Left anyway and the Government just carries on.

    Eventually this Government may fold (possibly on an unexpected economic problem, ironically perhaps the fruit of the impending Eurozone problems which keep getting kicked into the ‘long grass’ but which cannot be ignored forever) but not for any reason that is currently predictable.

    The Tory Government has made Brexit its core issue and not all Labour MPs are minded to oppose it – there are a few rebels on the Left as well. There is no need for a major ‘reforming’ legislative programme from its point of view and the preparation of the Great Repeal Bill and the seven separate transfer of powers bills in different sectors offer opportunities for tweaking and even cross-party rebel alliances to ‘reform’ through amendments (an opportunity that Labour should really be concentrating on).

    The boundary changes are now almost irrelevant. Labour’s interest, I am afraid, looks partisan, unfair and undemocratic and can be presented as such. Yes, it is possible that something happens that stops them in their tracks but the fundamentals suggest that May will go for an election under two conditions only.

    First, there really is to be a vote of no confidence in her Government involving a revolt of 1940 proportions (which seems increasingly unlikely) or, second, she feels she needs the backing of the people against an obstructive EU which is playing the domestic Remainer card (where, at least English, atavistic patriotism is likely to tip the balance in her favour).

    The idea in Tory circles that a swift election will take advantage of Labour’s current problems to give her a clearer majority forgets two things.

    First, that an election now would be a Brexit Election and the Tory Party would start to split in public over the Single Market. Second, that Labour’s loss in a General Election would give the Labour Right the perfect opportunity to force the resignation of Jeremy Corbyn and replace him with a ‘centrist’ likely to be more formidable in mobilising the working class vote that she aspires to split and in undermining her on Brexit.

    Anything is possible in the next two years and I would put a bet myself that boundary changes might not happen because a May 2019 Election might be forced in order to endorse or drive through a deal positioned as threatened by EU obduracy and ‘treachery’ in the liberal political class.

    But she would go to the country only on probable victory (including in Scotland) and those boundary changes would be restored soon after for what would be 2024.

    The truth is she, temporarily, holds all the cards. Her weak majority is restraint but only on tactics not strategy. She is popular (by standards) but her party is not and British elections are not Presidential yet. That may all change but I doubt if they will on the lines in the article.

    Above all, the claims of chaos are exaggerated. What is happening is little more than the aftershocks of the earthquake. The petty nationalists have few cards to play unless they turn to violence.

    Their fox can be shot by promising referenda or negotiations after Brexit and not before – and leading them on to the brink before actually shooting the animal. Dublin is in no position not to comply with sensible UK demands.

    Hollyrood is bound still by constitutional law and does not have the national base for radical measures. On the contrary, the Conservative Party is quietly reviving with the collapse of Labour and the need for a Unionist and even Brexit voice before a class voice.

    Finally, there is the myth that Brexit will take 10 years. There are fine details in specific sectors that might see a slower process of negotiation but the bulk of the show can be over by March 31st, 2019, because the Government has set up the conditions for a swift Hard Brexit if the EU simply does not act quickly enough.

    It is, at that point, that we might get the rebellion that triggers a ‘patriotic’ Brexit Election but it is as likely to be a damp squib or a marginal business that uses a reduced majority to show the Opposition as (in the right-wing Press) to be effectively creatures of the enemy. I can see the headlines now …

    No, nothing can be safely predicted, anything is possible but what is probable is that the Tories will see through both Brexit and austerity for at least two years and then either go to the country (if there is no significant ‘no confidence rebellion on the negotiation which is unlikely) on a confident belief that they can win on the first and ride on the second … or they will go to 2020 and trust to the gods.

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