By Paul Goodman
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David Cameron is reported to be considering not proceeding with the boundary review at all, rather than see it voted down by Liberal Democrat backbenchers and Ministers who – in the latter case – he would have to dismiss.
There are also complaints about Conservative backbenchers voting against the Lords Reform Bill and Liberal Democrat ones voting, in due course, against the boundary review.
It is thus important to grasp, amidst these controversies, exactly what obligations backbenchers and frontbenchers respectively have, from each Coalition partner alike, to commitments made in their manifestos and in the Coalition Agreement.
- No MP is bound by his party's manifesto. Obviously, candidates from a political party stand in general on their party's manifesto, and are thus broadly committed to its contents. But there may be particular exceptions, doubtless spelt out in their own election addresses (or the equivalent). These may be local: a Buckinghamshire candidate, for example, may declare himself opposed to HS2. Or they may be national: to take an obvious example, a particular Conservative candidate may sign himself up to "Better Off Out", which isn't party policy.
- No backbencher is bound by the Coalition Agreement… What holds in relation to party manifestos also holds for the agreement, as far as backbenchers are concerned – indeed, even more so, since no candidate campaigned on the contents of the agreement at the last election, and its contents have not been endorsed (even in the limited sense than a victorious party's manifesto is endorsed) by the voters.
- …But frontbenchers are in a different position. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have drawn up the agreement; it represents Government policy (broadly speaking, since parts of it, such as the big experiment with primaries, have been dropped, and other parts, such as the benefits cap, aren't in it). Those who serve in the Government are therefore bound by the agreement – or, to be more accurate, by the legislative programme that arises from it.
- Any frontbencher who votes against the Government's programme must either resign before doing so or be sacked afterwards. Liberal Democrats therefore have no right to complain if Conservative backbenchers vote against the Lords Reform Bill. Similarly, Conservatives have no right to complain if Liberal Democrat backbenchers vote against the boundary review. I think it would be a pity if they did, but they are perfectly free to do so. What cannot be permitted is for Conservative front benchers to vote against Lords reform or Liberal Democrat ones against the boundary review: collective responsibility applies.
Mr Cameron would thus have had no alternative but to sack PPS's Conor Burns and Angie Bray for voting against Lords Reform if they had not already resigned. Similarly, any Liberal Democrat Minister or PPS voting against the boundary review must be dismissed forthwith.
And if most are inclined do so so – in a tit-for-tat respose to Lords reform going down – Mr Cameron won't push the boundary review, since he won't want to see it voted down by a Labour-Liberal Democrat alliance.
So as James Forsyth wrote yesterday, the Conservative Party, with no helpful boundary review in the pipeline, would then surely seek to govern on its own – challenging the Liberal Democrats to vote down the Government.
And whatever the Fixed Term Parliament Act may say, forming a stable alternative government in these conditions would be impossible. Liberal Democrat MPs would thus be in the position of turkeys voting for Christmas and Boxing Day too – as the Tories would doubtless remind them.