By Paul Goodman
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What will agitate the most friction between Downing Street and Conservative backbenchers during the year ahead? Planning, perhaps, and the Government's plans to speed up the system? The lack of a powerful growth agenda? Europe? Or – getting closer to home – the unresolved state of affairs with IPSA? My answer is: none of the above – although the last is the best place to start, since MPs get at least as worked up about threats to their own future as threats to the country (as most of us would too in their position).
But the inconvenience of not having expenses on time is nothing, after all, compared with that of having no seat to represent. And this is precisely the prospect which is presently gripping very many MPs by the lapels. The Boundary Commission for England is due to release its proposals for this week. (The Commissions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are reporting separately.) The process that will follow is winding and tortuous, but best compressed as follows.
How the process will work – and what seat reduction means
First, there will a process of comment and representation – somewhat slimmed down compared to previous ones. Second, revised proposals are likely to be submitted by the Commission late next year. Third, the Commons will vote on the final proposals by October 2013. Even this dry summary of dates is capable of making MPs sweat. You may ask: why so, given that MPs in the past who've seen their seats abolished have simply swanned off to safer ones – undertaking, to shift the animal metaphor, the chicken run?
Consider, you could continue, no less a person than Sir George Young, the Leader of the Commons. When his Ealing Acton seat was scrapped by the Commission in 1997, he was translated from its London suburbs to the pastoral surroundings of Hampshire North-West. Won't the same course be taken again this time, many times? To which the answer is: no, for one simple reason if no other. The size of the Commons is coming down. The number of constituencies is being reduced from 650 to 600.
The appeal procedures make CCHQ's problems worse
And because the Government proposes to put equal size before other considerations – such as, for example, the present practice of seats not spilling over county boundaries – every seat will potentially be affected. Some experts point out that a few areas will lose very few seats. (The south-east is apparently due to lose only one.) But this is beside the point: what matters most is not so much number as effect. Remove some seats, stress size equality, re-draw boundaries and…hey presto, everyone's in the frame.
"We're like political prisoners under a dictatorship ," one told me last week. "We don't know whether we'll be released, charged, or executed." He acknowledged that the comparison was grotesquely extravagant – all the more so since, as the timetable suggests, there will be a process of appeal. But from Downing Street and CCHQ's point of view, this actually makes the problem of managing the seat reduction even more difficult, since the difficulties it will inflame will carry on itching away for the next two years.
As the old song has it, "There may be trouble ahead."
So let's think through what all this will mean:
- Money trouble. Associations will merge, a business that will bring in its wake squabbles about posts, money, and possibly premises. Admittedly, these come with every boundary review, but the seat reduction can only make them worse.
- Election trouble. The annual election cycle will of course carry on regardless. But Associations and MPs may be tempted not to strive quite so strenuously in parts of seats they believe will shortly be the responsibility of someone else. Again, this effect will be heightened by the constituency cull.
- Candidate trouble. The selection of candidates will be impossible until after late 2013. This will frustrate both CCHQ and those on the list eager to fight seats – particularly those who narrowly lost last time. I repeat the point about the particular effects of the reduction.
- MP trouble. The process will pitch MP against MP, as some safe seats turn marginal, some marginals turn notionally marginal for the Opposition, and some vanish completely. Furthermore, times have changed: both voters and Associations will be less willing to accept non-locals from elsewhere.
- CCHQ trouble. Attempts to put in new candidates will anger MPs. Attempts to put in MPs will anger hopefuls on the candidates list. And there may be few MPs standing down: lots went post-expenses who might otherwise have waited. Opposition parties will slam "chicken run" MPs.
- Downing Street trouble. An MP who thinks his seat may become unwinnable, or may vanish altogether, is a snarled-up MP. He or she is less motivated to work and more difficult to manage. The fall-out from the review will reach beyond CCHQ and the Whips' Office to Downing Street.
Given all this, why's the review going ahead?
I gather that CCHQ's boundary supremos are preparing to meet MPs about the proposals at party conference if necessary: they'll presumably be hauled off to a basement room with bright lights somewhere in darkest Manchester. And they haven't been slow to grasp what's at stake: one I saw last week sketched his local options for me on the back of a leaflet, describing while doing so the hazardous effect on his future of local feeling, possible retirements, and the popularity of neighbouring MPs – or otherwise.
So why on earth – you may ask, after all that – is David Cameron so determined to push the seat reduction through. I set aside for a moment his belief that the Commons would be better if it's smaller. For another factor is at play: the Party is unlikely to win an election on the present boundaries. To do so, it requires a lead of some 8 – 10% over Labour, all else being equal. If it didn't obtain this after the dark days of Gordon Brown, there's little prospect of it doing so after a term in office.
So…Let's face the music, and dance
There you have it. On the one side, the turbulence of a boundary review made all the more giddy by the effects of seat reduction. On the other, the near certainty that if it doesn't go through, the next election can't be won outright. And all this on top of planning, deficit reduction, Europe, those pesky LibDems… But that's enough doom-mongeing and gloomster-ing. Here's a video of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The Prime Minister is welcome to sing along.