Saturday, March 17, 2012

Nothing gets politicians so worked up as a Boundary Review

THIS week, The Journal reported that there had been more than 900 objections lodged with the Boundary Commission over its plan to alter the face of the region’s one real rock solid Tory enclave – the parliamentary seat of Hexham.

The plans, drawn up last September as part of the government’s proposal to reduce the size of the House of Commons by around 50 seats, would see historic country boundaries crossed in the name of ‘equalising’ the size of constituencies across the country.

If the proposals go ahead, the North-East will see its overall representation in Parliament fall from 29 to 26 with no part of the region unaffected by the changes.

For some of the region’s MPs, it is likely to mean the end of the political road, while those that survive are will find themselves standing for re-election in constituencies almost unrecognisable from their existing ones.

In nowhere than Hexham has the opposition to the government’s plans been more intense.

All three main parties – including the Conservatives and their sitting MP Guy Opperman – have come out against the proposals, with the 950 letters of opposition equalling the number received in all the other 28 North East constituencies put together.

What the opponents of the changes find particularly galling is the fact that the proposed new constituency will breach the historic county boundary between Northumberland and County Durham, with Haltwhistle moving into a newly-created seat of Consett and Barnard Castle.

Other proposed new constituencies in the region – for example Newcastle North and Cramlington – will see the traditional divide between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas breached, although, perhaps surprisingly, these seem to have aroused much less opposition to date.

But the ongoing debate over Hexham could prove to be a microcosm of a much larger battle over the government’s proposals which could yet influence both the timing and the outcome of the next general election.

In my column last week, I speculated that Nick Clegg’s proposals for House of Lords reform could ultimately prove to the rock on which the Coalition founders, with Conservative peers, who want to maintain the second chamber’s built-in Tory majority, threatening to derail his plans.

What does that have to do with Parliamentary boundaries, I hear you ask? Well, potentially quite a lot.

For the Lib Dems are threatening to retaliate against the potential loss of their leader’s cherished Lords reform plans by scuppering the Tories’ attempts to reduce the number of MPs.

Now at first sight, you might think this was yet another ill-judged policy intervention by the Lib Dems that is likely to prove about as big a vote-winner for them as their support for the Euro.

Years of mounting public cynicism about politicians – capped by the MPs’ expenses scandal – have created a climate in which any party advocating a reduction in their numbers is likely to be on pretty firm electoral ground.

But politicians are never so exercised as when their own jobs are under threat – and for that reason alone, a Lib Dem revolt against the boundary review proposals could have a very real prospect of success.

A small number of Tory MPs affected by the changes – some of them only elected for the first time in 2010 and whose parliamentary careers face being cut off in their infancy – might even be persuaded to join such a rebellion.

This is not just about the Lib Dems getting their own back on the Tories, though. There is undoubtedly an element of calculation in the party’s stance.

It is estimated that the boundary changes will be worth an extra 20 seats for the Conservatives at the next election – some of which will undoubtedly come at the expense of their Coalition partners.

The changes will therefore make it much more likely that there will be a majority Conservative administration next time round, and correspondingly much less likely that the Lib Dems will again be in a position to hold the balance of power.

Killing off the boundary review might yet be the Lib Dems’ best hope of hanging onto their ministerial limousines. And it might even win them a few votes in Hexham.

free web site hit counter

No comments: