Lords Defeat Poses Challenge to Cameron on Peerage Appointments

1st March 2013

BY MEG RUSSELL

Yesterday (28 February) the coalition suffered a massive defeat in the House of Lords over the question of David Cameron’s right to appoint new peers. This reflected widespread concern among existing members that new appointments could lead to increasingly bloated numbers, and also weaken the chamber’s ability to hold the government to account. The ill-tempered debate took place amid rumours that new government appointees are on the way.

The defeat was on a motion proposed by senior Liberal Democrat (and former party leader) David Steel, as amended by Labour frontbencher Philip Hunt. Steel’s original motion called for a complete halt to the introduction of any new peers until arrangements had been made to allow members to permanently retire. This was a novel proposal, because the Prime Minister (and nominally the monarch) controls appointments, but the Lords controls its own procedures, and could in theory refuse new members an introduction ceremony. But this was considered too incendiary by many peers, encroaching on the powers of the monarchy; so Hunt’s amendment merely called for “restraint” in creation of new peers, and for immediate introduction of retirement procedures, and barring peers who do not attend or are convicted of criminal offences. This more cautious approach did the trick, and attracted overwhelming support from peers.

Despite the government whipping against the proposal, only 45 peers opposed it (31 Conservative, 11 Liberal Democrat, 2 Crossbench and 1 other) while 217 supported Steel and Hunt (35 Conservative, 16 Liberal Democrat, 94 Labour, 57 Crossbench and 15 others). For full details of those voting see here. This defeat – by 172 votes – was the coalition’s largest to date, and certainly the first in which the number of rebels in both coalition parties exceeded the number of loyal voters. In fact, it was the third largest defeat in the Lords since its reform in 1999, being exceeded only by resistance to Labour’s Prevention of Terrorism Bill introducing control orders (in 2005) and Counter-Terrorism Bill over holding terror suspects for 42 days without charge (in 2008).

The vote therefore demonstrates real alarm and anger inside the Lords about the threat of ‘swamping’ by new government peers, and significant tensions inside the coalition. The coalition agreement suggested that appointments would be used to bring the Lords into line with general election vote shares, but as a Constitution Unit report in 2011 pointed out that this would require appointment of 269 new peers (or 349 if Crossbenchers were to maintain their current share of seats), bringing its size to 1062 (or 1142). This research was cited in the debate by Lord Hunt. Notably UKIP (see column 1651) have begun to demand the 24 peers that they would be due under strict proportionality, and other parties such as the BNP could do the same. Since the furore caused by our report, appointments have been very limited. But the government has not officially renounced its earlier rather foolish pledge.

Of course, the wider context is the bitter issue of Lords reform within the coalition. Resistance from Conservative MPs meant Nick Clegg’s reform bill to introduce elections to the chamber had to be dropped. Lord Steel opposes elections, and has several times promoted a bill to facilitate small ‘tidying up’ changes, including retirement for peers. This is due for debate in the Commons today, sponsored by Conservative MP Eleanor Laing, but is likely to be blocked by the whips. Nick Clegg had previously argued that it was important to “not make the best the enemy of the good” when it came to Lords reform, but having been angered by the blocking of his bill he has clearly changed his mind. Lord Steel read from a recent parliamentary written answer, which stated that “In the absence of full reform, it is the Government’s view that there is no easy set of smaller reforms to the House of Lords… So reform measures must include introducing elected Members to the House of Lords”.

Yet as former Lord Speaker Baroness Hayman said in yesterday’s debate, “it is not responsible to continue to do nothing”. Statistics were traded, and Leader of the House Lord Hill suggested that the number of peers eligible to attend is barely larger than it was in 2007 (761 to 738). But this carefully excluded 50 members on temporary leave of absence and the like, who can potentially return. The total eligible membership, at 811, is significantly higher than at any time since 1999. Additionally, as some members pointed out, the rise in active members is far higher. Immediately post-reform in 1999 the average daily attendance was 352; in 2010-12 it was 475.

But this issue is also now highly politicised. Labour fears that the coalition – which is already numerically stronger than it ever was when in government 1997-2010 – will use new peerage creations to smother Lords’ resistance, and end defeats (this being its 62nd since taking office). The coalition claims that numerous Labour peers were appointed by Blair and Brown – which is true, and added to the chamber’s size, but never gave government anything close to a political majority.

The fundamental problem is that there is no agreement about how seats should be shared between the parties, and no constraints – aside from political embarrassment – on prime ministerial patronage power. What is urgently needed is some formula, agreed between the parties, under which any future appointments will be made. Linking this in some way to general election vote shares is reasonable, but not in the way that the coalition agreement laid down. Earlier proposals, such as those from the Wakeham Royal Commission, suggested that each new set of appointments should be in line with votes – which is a far more sustainable formula. For example, if 10 new peers were appointed in line with the 2010 result these would be shared 4 Conservative, 3 Labour, 2 Lib Dem, 1 other. Such proportions would vary only slightly over time (the 1997 equivalent would be 4 Labour, 3 Conservative, 2 Lib Dem, 1 other). But the trouble is that the baseline membership of the chamber matters too, and the coalition considers itself underrepresented (insofar as that claim is justified, it essentially just applies to the Lib Dems). If we are to engage in grown-up politics, the three parties should sit down and urgently and agree a future appointment formula, alongside some trimming of the existing membership so that the starting point is fair. But this would require maturity, and also the kind of retirement provision sought by Lord Steel. There would also need to be a strict cap agreed on the overall size of the chamber.

The Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has recently announced an inquiry into what immediate reforms are needed to the Lords following the failure of Clegg’s bill. If it can agree a cross-party report on such matters, this could be a first step to ending the present bitterness in the Lords, and ensuring that public confidence in parliament doesn’t dip further by the chamber being made to look absurd.

Meg Russell is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, and leads its research on parliament.
Her new book ‘The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived’ will be published by OUP this summer. See here: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199671564.do
For the Unit’s research on the Lords see: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/parliament/house-of-lords

Lords vote on constituency boundaries: when is a defeat a defeat?

Last night in the Lords, the government’s Electoral Registration and Administration Bill was amended, to delay the planned boundary review of Commons constituencies (which was previously agreed in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011). In short, this was the Liberal Democrats wreaking their revenge on the Conservatives for the collapse of Lords reform. 72 Lib Dem peers voted in favour of the amendment, and it passed by 300 votes to 231.

This is undoubtedly a major blow for David Cameron and his Conservative colleagues. But was it a government defeat? The Independent reports it as a ‘bruising defeat on the Government’, but the Guardian more cautiously avoids using the D word in this way, only suggesting that should Cameron try to reverse the decision in the Commons he ‘would be defeated’, while the BBC makes no mention of the word at all.

For those of us who monitor parliamentary voting, this episode presents a dilemma. While commentators can skirt around the word, we need to decide whether this was a government defeat or not. The Constitution Unit’s website has long provided a breakdown of government defeats in the House of Lords as they happen, but this doesn’t quite fit the category. While the Conservatives whipped in favour of keeping the legislation as it was, the Liberal Democrats whipped against. Those voting for the amendment included Lib Dem ministers. Party leader Nick Clegg had made clear his intention to scupper the proposals when Lords reform was dropped, and defended his peers’ decision today, as the BBC story reports. This was clearly not a government win, and nor was it a free vote, but when the Deputy Prime Minister himself is applauding the decision, it can hardly be described as a defeat either.

Like us, the House of Lords authorities keep a running total of government defeats. Their own website chooses to describe this as a government defeat, on the basis that the government Chief Whip acted as a ‘teller’ for those wanting the bill to stay as it was. But the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip (who is also the government Deputy Chief Whip) was among those voting for it to change. I do not criticise the decision of the House of Lords’ authorities: they had to decide very quickly which way to jump. The support of the government Chief Whip is normally a pretty definitive indicator of the government’s position. But we are now in new territory, where the government – at least on certain matters – has no unified position. It seems that we need a new category for such parliamentary decisions. We have chosen for now to call this a ‘coalition split vote’. Comments and alternative suggestions are welcome below. It would be particularly interesting to know how such episodes are viewed in other jurisdictions more familiar with coalition government. The British are novices at this stuff.

This peculiar episode illustrates two more interesting things: the first is how little attention the media pays to the House of Lords. Had Liberal Democrat ministers gone through the division lobbies against their Conservative colleagues in the Commons this would have been huge political news. But because it occurred in the Lords, it didn’t even make last night’s BBC headlines. The second interesting factor is why this didn’t happen in the Commons. Cameron does not have the numbers in the Commons to overturn the decision, so it is not just a numbers issue, and he is unlikely to overturn the decision. But the second chamber’s culture of ‘self-regulation’ was crucial to this vote. The clerks’ official advice had been that the amendment was ‘inadmissible’ because it was ‘not relevant to the bill’. But peers decided to vote for it anyway. In the Commons such an amendment would have been ruled out of order by the Speaker and MPs would have been denied a chance to vote on it. In the Lords, all poor Leader of the House Lord Hill of Oareford (who has only been in post for a week, following Lord Strathclyde’s resignation) could do was plead with peers to follow convention (see here, column 490).

‘The Politics of Coalition’ by Robert Hazell & Ben Yong is shortlisted for Political Book of the Year

Congratulations to Professor Robert Hazell and Dr Ben Yong. Their book ‘The Politics of Coalition’ (Hart Publishing) has been shortlisted for Political Book of the Year in The Paddy Power and Total Politics Political Book Awards, which has been set up to celebrate and reward excellence across all areas of political publishing. The awards ceremony will take place at the BFI IMAX cinema on the 6th February 2013.

See Professor Hazell and Dr Yong discuss the book at our October 2012 seminar: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/events/public-seminars/201213/politics-of-coalition

For more information on the Coalition Government project: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/coalition-government

For more information on the awards and the shortlisting: http://politicalbookawards.com/#totalpolitics

 

Not all splits are coalition splits

Posted on behalf of Peter Waller

The political commentariat love nothing more than predicting the end of the coalition, driven by splits and crises. And we have seen a rash of such stories this week over both energy policy and Leveson.

But the truth is a bit more complicated – and more interesting  –  than that.

Energy first. Until the middle of this year, DECC had been a beacon of coalition harmony in that both a Lib Dem Secretary of State and a full team of Tory Ministers were happily pursuing  a common policy with no obvious internal rows. There were admittedly some well reported disagreements with both George Osborne and Vince Cable –  but no one in Whitehall would regard those as anything other than conventional Departmental tensions not coalition ones.

But then Cameron sacked the mild mannered and coalition friendly Charles Hendry and replaced him with the much more populist and known climate change sceptic John Hayes. The only way to interpret this change was that the Tories were aware of growing unrest on their own backbenches – mainly on windfarms but also on energy costs  – and decided to throw them a little red meat.

And Hayes immediately decided that his new role entitled him not only to be a flagship for those restive backbenchers but to use his new role to attack his own Department’s policy in public. He hasn’t exactly been successful in that in that Ed Davey has first rebutted him and then proceeded to issue an Energy Bill which is far closer to existing policy than anything Hayes would support. DECC hasn’t got everything it wanted in the Bill – but what is missing can be put down to  the traditional funding concerns of the Treasury.

So is this a coalition split? No, for the very good reason is that it is actually a clear case of our old friend, the Tory split. Certainly the other leading Tory in DECC, Greg Barker, seems to have not the slightest problem with the policy he had been pursuing first with Huhne and now Davey.

Similar considerations apply to Leveson – though it is early to predict exactly how that will pan out when people have actually read it.  The interesting thing here is that over 50 Tory backbenchers have already come out in favour of statutory back-up to the press regulatory system. So again, it seems that the Tories are split rather more than the coalition is split.

But there are interesting lessons to be learnt from both energy and Leveson. We at the Constitution Unit have long believed that there will be no coalition split because it is highly unlikely to benefit either partner from ending it before 2015.  But what we are now seeing is the impact of the coalition on the way that politics is conducted in the UK.  That means a junior minister can attack his own Departmental policy and not be sacked. Government backbenchers don’t wait until their Prime Minister has announced his response to  a report before announcing how they will vote. And the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister can argue their different cases at the dispatch box on the same day.

To my mind that is nothing but healthy. As a former Whitehall civil servant, I know there are numerous issues on which there is genuine disagreements behind closed doors. If coalition means we see a few more of those disagreements out in the open, then three cheers!

Video: The Politics of Coalition

Robert Hazell and Ben Yong

Date and Time: Wednesday 10 October, 1.00pm
Venue: Council Room, The Constitution Unit

The Politics of Coalition is authored by the Constitution Unit’s Prof Hazell and Dr Yong and was published in June. It is the tale of two parties struggling to maintain the first coalition government at Westminster for over 60 years, and asks what the major challenges were in the first 15 months, and how have they were managed.

With the authorisation of Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, Robert Hazell and Ben Yong interviewed over 140 ministers, MPs, Lords, civil servants, party officials and interest groups about the coalition and what impact two-party government has had upon Westminster and Whitehall.

The Politics of Coalition tells how the Coalition has fared in the different arenas of the British political system: at the Centre; within the Departments; in Parliament; in the parties outside Parliament, and in the media.

As the coalition approaches the half-way point of its five-year term, Hazell and Yong will discuss how the findings of the book are likely to play out.

The latest special adviser reshuffle

The full breakdown of special adviser movement.
Note: an asterisk denotes change due to Lena Pietsch’s return from maternity leave; SSoS refers to ‘Senior Secretary of State’.

Last Friday, the Cabinet Office published the first list of special advisers (spads) in post since the September 2012 reshuffle.

It appears they were uploaded at 7.08pm that night. An hour earlier, Andrew Mitchell had resigned his post as Chief Whip. Mitchell had only just appointed a new spad, Meg Powell-Chandler, and he may have been planning to appoint another. Since spads’ appointments are technically terminated when their appointing Minister leaves office, Powell-Chandler’s tenure was abruptly cut short.

Andrew Mitchell’s replacement as Chief Whip is Sir George Young, who left the Cabinet only six weeks earlier. His return brings the possibility that Robert Riddell, his spad as Leader of the House (2010-12), will make a return to government. Young is unlikely to keep on Powell-Chandler or appoint anyone else, because the Chief Whip under Coalition has so far only taken on one on spad, giving the other ‘slot’ to their deputy from the partner party.

Since the reshuffle, a couple of significant appointments have been made at the centre of government, with Oliver Dowden and Ryan Coetzee being brought in to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister’s offices, Dowden as Deputy Chief of Staff And Coetzee as Clegg’s chief strategy spad.

Some line departments now have more than two spads. Michael Gove and Iain Duncan-Smith now have three spads each. Another impending appointment means that BIS will now have four spads in the department: two for Vince Cable, two for the Conservative ‘junior’ ministers, Michael Fallon and David Willetts.

Jeremy Hunt has kept one of his spads from DCMS, Sue Beeby, and has agreed to appoint a second spad, Sam Talbot-Rice. Talbot-Rice is not included on Friday’s release because he had not started in his post. The Constitution Unit understands that he will take up his post on November 19 and will act as Hunt’s ‘policy special adviser’. Chris Grayling (MOJ) and Maria Miller (DCMS) are two Secretaries of State likely to hire a second spad soon.

Both of Andrew Lansley’s spads at DH have left the government, unique among spads with reshuffled ministers. The only spad to leave their post without their minister being reshuffled was Bridget Harris. She was one of the six Lib Dem ‘departmental’ spads appointed to monitor developments across government, reporting to Nick Clegg.

Three spads have moved to work for different ministers in different departments. Amy Fisher has moved from Defra to MOJ; Victoria Crawford from DFT to DFID; Guy Levin from DCMS to DFID. That is unusual: spads are usually personal appointments, and move with their minister.

Jonathan Caine is unique as spad to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. As predicted in a previous blog post, he is the only spad who has remained in a department in spite of a change of Secretary of State. That may be explained by his previous history: he was a spad in NIO under John Major for five years before being brought back in 2010. Arguably, he is an ‘expert’ spad.

But it is worth noting that the pending appointment in DH and BIS means that the Government will soon set a record for the number of spads in government. With fourteen joining and only ten leaving, the number of spads in post increased between July and October 2012 from 81 to 85. But the reported appointments at DBIS and DH as well as potential appointments in the Whips’ office, MoJ and DCMS mean that the number of spads can be expected to reach 87 and perhaps as high as 90, topping the previous record of 85 spads in 2004 under Labour. The rise in numbers may be brought about by the fact of coalition (and the need for greater cross party interaction); and recognition of the need for more politically committed advice and assistance to Ministers. But it is also a product of the rise in the number of ministers in the Coalition Government—especially ministers attending Cabinet.

Last weekend, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) published its report ‘Special Advisers in the thick of it’. The Committee came out against a cap on the numbers of spads. That was sensible: the focus should be on the effectiveness of special advisers, not their numbers. Spads are here to stay, and the sooner we have a dispassionate and informed debate about their role, the better. But whether or not the public and Westminster observers will agree is a different matter.

MH

[This post was edited on 23/10/12 to take account of Coalition practice in appointing spads to whips.]

The price of constitutional revenge: Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie outline possible consequences of the Liberal Democrats voting down the proposed new Parliamentary constituencies

 

On Monday, 6 August, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, announced that because the Prime Minister could not deliver Conservative party backbench support for the coalition’s House of Lords Reform Bill, it was being withdrawn. Mr Clegg interpreted this as the Conservative party failing to deliver on part of its coalition agreement – a point also made by other Liberal Democrat spokespersons (rather unsuccessfully in some cases, as with Jeremy Browne on the next day’s Today programme). As a consequence he would instruct his party to vote against the main Conservative component in the package of constitutional changes in that agreement – the Boundary Commissions’ recommendations for 600 new Parliamentary constituencies involving a reduction in the number of MPs, much greater electoral equality and more frequent (every five years) redistributions.

Two days later, David Cameron indicated his determination to proceed with the review arguing – according to The Independent, 8 August 2012 – that every MP should agree that ‘the House of Commons ought to be smaller, ought to be less expensive and we ought to have seats that are exactly the same size’. (No convincing evidence was ever cited in the long Parliamentary debates over the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, 2011, to sustain his first two oughts, and of course the legislation does not require exact equality, only that the range of constituency electorates should be no more than 10 per cent of the average – i.e. 7643 voters.)

The Boundary Commissions are currently just over half-way through their review implementing the new rules for redistribution. They have published their initial proposals and undertaken the first stage of the public consultation process. Revised recommendations are expected in October, and after a further period of consultation they are expected to complete their work in mid-2013. Their final recommendations have to be delivered by October 2013 and presented to both Houses for approval. When they are tabled in the House of Commons, Mr Clegg (who was responsible for the Act which created the new situation, though it was steered through by a Conservative Minister, Mark Harper) would have been expected to present the Orders. There is, of course, a precedent for a Cabinet Minister presenting such an Order, only for his whips to ensure it was defeated – James Callaghan in 1969 – although that did not have the potential to bring down a government. Mr Clegg may well pass the task to another, but if he does instruct his MPs, including all Liberal Democrat Ministers, to vote against and assist Labour in defeating the Orders this could lead to the coalition’s demise!

What would happen then is uncertain. Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, 2011 (another element of the coalition constitutional package) a general election can only be held before the scheduled date of 7 May, 2015, if either:

  1. The House of Commons passes a motion to the effect that ‘There shall be an early Parliamentary general election’, with the number voting for that motion being at least two-thirds of the number of seats in the House (including current vacancies); or
  2. The House of Commons passes a motion ‘That this House has no confidence in her Majesty’s Government’ and a further motion ‘That this House has confidence in her Majesty’s Government’ is not then passed (presumably on another potential government, with a different leader, than that in which no confidence was recently expressed) within fifteen days of the first motion.

If the government falls as a consequence of the vote on the new 600 constituencies, therefore, an immediate general election may follow if the House of Commons so decides. It would be fought in the existing 650 seats.

Of course, if Labour and the Liberal Democrat MPs all voted against the Order, it would not necessarily fail. Together they could muster 312 votes (assuming a Labour win in the forthcoming Corby by-election) to the Conservatives 304. Everything would then depend on the 25 other MPs who normally attend and vote (i.e. excluding Sinn Féin’s five plus the Speaker and three Deputies): nine Scottish and Welsh nationalists, eight from the DUP, three from the SDLP, three from single-member parties (Alliance, Green, Respect) and the two independents. It would be possible, but difficult, for the Conservatives to use ‘sweeteners’ to manufacture a majority of 321 without their coalition partners, if they were determined to get the new constituencies in place for the 2015 election.

And David Cameron has indicated that they will be determined. The legislation was introduced because the Conservatives believe – rightly – that they have been substantially disadvantaged by the operation of the electoral system for two decades. They also believe – wrongly – that the major reason for this is the current inequality in constituency electorates, which substantially favours Labour. That component of the pro-Labour bias is much less than they sometimes claim. Nevertheless, analysis of the Boundary Commissions’ initial recommendations clearly indicates should be the Conservatives will be the major beneficiaries of the first implementation of the new system for redistributions and the reduced number of MPs. In 2010, they gained a lead over Labour of 48 seats. If that election had been fought in the Commissions’ proposed new seats, best estimates suggest that their lead over Labour would have been extended to 68 seats (in a House of only 600 MPs compared to the current 650). With the Liberal Democrats estimated to win only 46 seats (they got 57 in 2010), the Conservatives would have been only two seats short of an overall majority (and with Sinn Féin MPs not voting would in effect have a very small one).

Of course, the Commissions will probably change their recommendations (though not extensively, given the constraints they are working under) after they have considered the representations received: these have included strenuous efforts by each of the parties to alter the proposed boundaries in their electoral favour in many areas, by suggesting alternative configurations that better meet the deployed criteria (community ties, continuity of representation, special geographical considerations etc.) other than electoral equality. Indeed, if all of the Conservatives’ counter-proposals were implemented (which is very unlikely, despite their very professional, painstaking approach to the task) they might expect to have won a further 13 seats than in those constituencies proposed by the Commissions: with Labour losing twelve the gap between the two parties would be 93 seats rather than 68, and the Conservatives would have had a workable majority. (Of course, if the other parties’ counter-proposals were all implemented the situation would not be so rosy: Labour’s would close the gap to only 47 seats, for example.)

The implication is that between now and October 2013 the Conservatives will do much to try and win back Liberal Democrat support for the new constituencies – based on arguments made by Mr Clegg in Parliament in 2011 that the rules used to produce them are much fairer than those previously deployed. Whether that involves a much more limited reform of the House of Lords, along the lines being vigorously promoted by David Steel (an ex-leader of Mr Clegg’s party), or other ‘concessions’ in a renewed coalition agreement remains to be seen. (The Conservatives may also have to convince some of their own MPs that the exercise is worth it. Many were surprised by the extensive fracturing of the constituency maps in the Commissions’ initial proposals – one termed them ‘somewhat more disruptive than we had in mind’ – and although most indicated their support for greater equality, fewer MPs, and more frequent redistributions in their representations to the Commissions, in some cases this was clearly grudging support as they faced the possibility of having to seek re-election from a very different seat to that currently represented.)

At this stage, however unlikely it might be that Mr Clegg carries out his threat (assuming he is still leading his party in a year’s time), it is illuminating to rehearse briefly several other scenarios that might play out.

The first – although very unlikely, because of the loss of face it would involve and the potential use of Parliamentary time – is that the 2011 Act is repealed in autumn 2012. The Boundary Commissions will then terminate the present exercise and the previous legislation will come back into play. This requires them to undertake a review every 8-12 years. The last one was completed in 2007 (2004 in Scotland) and in order to meet that timetable they (especially the English Commission) may deem it necessary to start a review in 2013. It would not report until after the 2015 general election, however, which would have to be fought in the current 650 constituencies with some at least of the pro-Labour biases accentuated in seats that were created using 2000-2001 electoral data. New constituencies would only be in place in time for the 2020 election – but with at least the same number of MPs as now, and perhaps a few more.

One of a second pair of scenarios would eventuate if the Boundary Commissions complete their current task in 2013, but their recommendations are then voted down by Parliament. In that case too, the 2015 election would be held in the current 650 constituencies. Much will then depend on who wins that election. If the Conservatives do, or they are the largest party in a new coalition government, they will presumably retain the current legislation (perhaps with some amendments: they were pressured to retain Public Hearings and may try again to abolish them – like the previous Local Inquiries, they continue to be dominated by the political parties). The Boundary Commissions will, under the 2011 Act, start their next review in 2015-2016, to produce a House of 600 members by October 2018, for use at the 2020 election. The 600 constituencies currently being created would probably form the basis for that exercise, although significant changes in some areas may be needed because of population movements, re-warding by local government boundary commissions, and the impact of Individual Electoral Registration, assuming that legislation passes.

If Labour forms a government in 2015, however, or is the largest party in a coalition, it may well repeal the 2011 legislation, which it vigorously opposed, especially in the long and tedious House of Lords Second Reading debates. The Boundary Commissions would then have to begin a new review based on the rules set out in the Boundary Commissions Act, 1986 (before it was amended by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, 2011). Under those conditions, it is unlikely that that review would be completed in time for new constituencies to be in place for the 2020 general election (particularly in England: it may be completed and its recommendations implemented in the other three countries). In that case an election would be held 2020 in the 650 constituencies based on data some twenty years old, with very substantial electoral inequality (although, given the growing re-population of urban England recently reported, this may not be as much to Labour’s advantage – except in Scotland and Wales – as it has been previously). The new constituencies, based on 2015 electoral data, would then be ten years old when first used in 2025 – exactly the situation the Conservatives sought to avoid with the 2011 legislation.

Half-way through the two decades from 2000, there are already substantial variations in constituency electorates within each country. In December 2011, for example, the average English constituency contained 72,522 voters but three (including the two Wirral seats) had electorates below 60,000 and a further 47 had 60,000-65,000: at the other end of the scale, three (Manchester Central, East Ham and the Isle of Wight) had electorates in excess of 90,000, and another 45 had 85,000-90,000. By 2020, the variation would be much greater. Meanwhile, in over-represented Wales the current average electorate is just 57,465, and four of the 40 constituencies have fewer than 50,000 voters.

Finally, if the Commissions’ recommendations for 600 new constituencies are accepted by Parliament in 2013 and used for the 2015 general election, what happens next remains a matter of conjecture. If Labour wins then it will probably seek to amend the Act, creating new rules (probably with a wider range of acceptable electorate sizes that the 5 per cent maximum variation from the average currently enacted and different guidelines for the conduct of public consultation, and perhaps also with less frequent redistributions than every five years)? If so, the outcome could well be another new set of constituencies considerably different from those used for the 2015 election. If the Conservatives win, they are more likely to retain the current rules – though some at least of their MPs are uneasy about them. At one stage before the 2010 election there was talk of reducing the size of the House of Commons in two tranches – to 585 MPs in 2015 and then 500 in 2020 (a goal supported by some Liberal Democrat MPs). After the problems with the current redistribution that is probably now off their agenda!

*****

If a week is a long time in politics, a year is a geological era and much may happen to change Mr Clegg’s stance – if not that of his Conservative partners – before the Orders based on the Boundary Commissions’ current reviews are placed before Parliament and voted on. But if, for some reason, those new constituencies are not in place in time for the 2015 general election, the result will not only be a larger House of Commons than that legislated for in the coalition government’s early months, but also a very unsatisfactory, ancient, set of unequal constituencies (both across and within each of the UK’s four countries) and all the biases this can introduce to the electoral system’s operation. As seemed possible at times in 2010, Labour could win a majority even though it wasn’t the largest party!