6 Aug 2012

Coalition headed for all-out-war?

Tonight the Coalition is probably at it’s lowest ebb.

If it wasn’t for the Olympics and the fact most MPs are on holiday, then this would be a much bigger story.

There are serious tit-for-tat exchanges, and could soon be all-out war. The editor of ConservativeHome, Tim Mongomerie, quoted a Cabinet minister this afternoon as saying “At the earliest opportunity we must revenge Clegg’s betrayal.” The two sides openly accuse each other of breaching the Coalition contract, and of not being grown up.

Nick Clegg today said the Tories had broken the Coalition Agreement – or contract – for the first time, and now plan to vote to stop the proposed boundary changes coming in before the next election in 2015.

But Tories say the breach of contract isn’t by them. Boundary changes weren’t linked to Lords reform, Conservatives argue, but to the AV referendum.

One can see this leading to further, and worsening, tit-for-tat exchanges, and after the success of the Lords rebellion, Tory backbenchers will inevitably be emboldened and use the excuse of Lib Dem “betrayal” to snipe at other Coalition policies they dislike.

Keeping party discipline is becoming increasingly difficult for the Government Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin.

The Lib Dems decision to oppose the new boundaries is understandable since they’re set to fare worst of lose, and lose an estimated twelve seats.

Yet ironically, Nick Clegg’s party was committed at the 2010 election to an even bigger reduction in the number of MPs than the Conservatives were. They wanted a Commons with just 500 MPs (admittedly providing it was elected by the STV system of PR). That would be a cut of 150, compared with the Tories rather less ambitious plans for a cut of 65, down to 585.

The new boundaries subsequently proposed by the Coalition would cut the number of parliamentary seats from 650 to 600, make seats bigger on avarage, and also more equal. That’s thought to benefit the Conservatives by the equivalent of an extra 20 seats compared with the other parties. So instead of being 18 seats short of a majority, as now, David Cameron would be very close to having a majority in the Commons. Indeed many Tory MPs already despair of getting a majority at the next election, and this bust-up will make that despair even greater, even though most of them will be delighted to see the Lords bill dropped (and some will be quite pleased to see the boundaries are likely to be kyboshed too).

The Conservative side of the Coalition intends to soldier on and hold the necessary vote on the new boundaries in the autumn of 2013, but with Lib dem opposition it’s hard to see how they’ll get that vote through.

With the pending by-election in the marginal seat of Corby – thanks to Louise Mensch’s surprise resignation as an MP today – the Conservative vote in the Commons is likely to one fewer, and they’ll need the support of most of the smaller parties (such as the DUP, SDLP and SNP) to win. What’s more, several Tory MPs will be tempted to abstain or vote against, including a few who stand to lose their own seats under the changes.

Conservative party managers seem to be hoping something will turn up before the autumn 2013 vote which might win back Lib Dem support on this issue – perhaps publicly shaming the Lib Dems into voting for fewer politicians. I can’t see that happening personally.

Meanwhile the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg made it clear when I questioned him today that he plans to press on with fulfilling another aspect of the Coalition Agreement – the little noticed pledge to appoint new peers to ensure the balance of party strengths in the upper house reflects each party’s share of the vote at the last election.

There are 765 peers now, and I calculate that it would take another 68 Conservatives and 89 more Lib Dems for the ratio between peers from the big three parties refected the 36-29-23 vote share in 2010. That would be 157 new lords and ladies in all, and the figure would be much higher – around 200 – if smaller parties like UKIP, Plaid Cymru and the Northern Ireland parties are included in the Coalition pledge on Lords appointments too. And this assumes Labour gets no new peers at all.

Follow @MichaelLCrick on Twitter.