Odds and Sods of Parliamentary Arithmetic – The Boundary Changes
Even as someone who tends to cultivate rather niche interests, there’s one I’m careful not to mention in conversation unless I want to see the eyes of the person I’m talking to either glaze over or frantically flick around the pub for someone they can suddenly realise is a long lost acquaintance requiring instant greeting; I’m mildly obsessed with parliamentary arithmetic.
I say ‘mildly obsessed’ as it doesn’t keep me up at night, or even particularly interest me, but on any given day I can of course tell you what the Government’s majority is, on paper and in practice, and whether the strength of each party has changed during the current parliament. Can’t everyone?
This condition can be diagnosed as dating back to my time as a Students’ Union Sabbatical Officer during the long run up to the vote to increase tuition fees, eventually held on the 9th December, 2010.
In the months beforehand, as we campaigned and lobbied to try to stop the vote passing, I walked around with a running total of how MPs were voting in my head, and the figures for how different combinations would add up burnt into my brain. I could never have anticipated I’d spend so much time in the study of obscure Liberal Democrat MPs.
As the vote drew closer and our efforts became more and more desperate [‘Can we get that MP who’s facing trial for expenses fraud to turn up to vote before he’s suspended from Parliament and goes to prison?’ (Yes) ‘Any chance we can get that MP who’s in Mexico to fly back without alerting the whips?’ (No)], I covered an office wall with movable slips of paper listing how MPs were intending to vote.
Of course we lost that one – though I was proud of our efforts, given me faced the full might of the Government machine and Whips’ Office armed primarily with post-it notes.
Gradually the figures and the increasingly bizarre contortions of MPs faded from my mind.
But I’ve subconsciously retained a good working knowledge of parliamentary arithmetic and feel my ears pricking up whenever I hear talk of a vote in the House of Commons potentially being close.
A long awaited Government defeat?
Particularly in the first year or so of the Coalition Government there was frequently excited chatter that votes on controversial topics (and almost everything this Government does is controversial to some extent) could be very close, and that Lib Dem MPs in particular could cause a Government defeat by rebelling and voting with Labour. This has never come to pass, and much heralded defeats for the Government have always vanished on being approached like the will-o’-the-wisp.
[True parliamentary watchers will know this isn’t quite true – the Opposition did win what now looks like a distinctly pyrrhic victory in October 2012 when a Labour non-binding amendment, supported by Tory rebels, calling for a cut in the European Union’s budget passed by 13 votes.
The Government also lost a December 2011 vote by 134 votes in strange circumstances, when Labour forced an unexpected vote on the motion ‘This House has considered the economy’, a banality which Government whips had expected to pass without a vote, but which was defeated as most Coalition MPs had gone home.
Proposals for House of Lords reform were also withdrawn on the day of the vote, as they faced almost certain defeat.]
But now finally – the moment has arrived! The unashamed parliamentary pedants and scourers of division lists are to be rewarded after years of patience!
I don’t see any way the Government can avoid defeat in tonight’s vote on boundary changes.
The pros and cons of the proposed boundary changes probably deserve a separate post (the BBC have a good introductory Q&A on them), but the debate has become one about shear party political advantage, with the changes seen primarily as an attempt to boost the number of Conservative MPs and increase their chances of winning the next election, ever since last year’s headlines like ‘’Reform Lords or it cost you 20 MPs’ David Cameron told’.
Fundamentally, they also face defeat for reasons of party advantage – the proposals have appeared in serious trouble ever since the Liberal Democrats announced last August their intention to vote with Labour to block the changes, in retaliation for Conservative MPs effectively scuppering Lord’s Reform.
This all, by the by, raises the vexed question about whether this can be considered a Government defeat given that the Government is clearly split, and its Deputy Chief Whip and Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household, the jovial Orcadian Alistair Carmichael, will clearly be encouraging part of it to vote against the other.
It may therefore be fairer to refer to this as the first major Conservative defeat of this Parliament, although as it’s a key part of the Government’s legislative programme I imagine many commentators, will with justification, refer to it simply as a defeat for the Government.
But back to the lovely arithmetic…
It’s often reported that Labour and the Liberal Democrats together have 315 MPs to the Conservatives’ 307 [though as we’ll see below neither of these figures is quite correct] so it would seem that their defection alone should end the chance of a vote passing.
But some slightly obsessive number crunching is required just to make sure:
The Major Parties?
In 2010 the Conservatives won 307 seats – from these we should deduct the Speaker, John Bercow, and the Deputy Speaker, Nigel Evans, who due to their roles don’t vote, and Louise Mensch’s Corby seat lost to Labour in a by-election last year.
We should also technically – and technicalities are important in this – deduct Nadine Dorries, who had the Conservative whip withdrawn amidst controversy over her decision to appear on I’m a Celebrity Get me out of Here. Despite requests, she hasn’t had the whip restored as of yet, so is not officially a Conservative MP.
This makes 303 Conservative MPs.
Labour won 258 seats in 2010, to which we currently need to add Andy Sawford, winner of the Corby by-election, but subtract the Bradford West seat, lost to Respect’s George Galloway last year.
We also need to subtract Lindsay Hoyle and Dawn Primarolo who don’t vote as Deputy Speakers [Deputy Speakers are traditionally chosen for balance – given the Speaker is currently from the Conservative side of the house he is joined by one Conservative Deputy and two Labour.]
Eric Joyce, who had the Labour whip withdrawn in circumstances even more bizarre than Nadine Dorries, should also be subtracted, making 255 Labour MPs.
The Lib Dems have 57 MPs so 255 + 57=312
Even IF – and it’s a big if – all Conservative MPs vote in favour of the new boundaries, this would result in a clear defeat 303 for – 312 against.
The Odds and Sods?
Roy Hattersley recalls in his memoirs how in the late 1970s when Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government lost its overall majority the Chief Whip would convene regular meetings before each vote to run through a list of ‘Odds and Sods’ – MPs from minor parties or independents who might be persuaded to support the Government and help it survive another day.
(This strategy came to an end on the dramatic night when the sods outnumbered odds and the Callaghan Government, faced oddly enough by a Conservative-Liberal-SNP-Ulster Unionist alliance, lost a Vote of No Confidence by a single vote. This precipitating the 1979 general election and, though no-one could know it at the time, 18 years of Conservative rule.)
So who would the current Whips Office be counting as odds and sods?
In terms of MPs outside of the three main parties we have:
(In Nothern Ireland)
The Democratic Unionist Party – 8 seats
The Alliance Party – 1
The Social Democratic and Labour Party – 3
The Independent Unionist MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon – 1
(In Wales and Scotland)
Plaid Cymru – 3
The Scottish Nationalist Party – 6
The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas – 1
Respect’s George Galloway – 1
Nadine Dorries –1
Eric Joyce – 1
A total of 26 – easily enough to swing the vote in either direction.
[On paper the the Nationalist Sinn Fein have 5 seats, or 4 following Martin McGuinness’ recent resignation, but not recognising Westminster sovereignty over Northern Ireland they do not take up their seats. While I remember some mordant speculation the Government might offer them a united Ireland in return for their voting in favour of tuition fees, I think they can safely be discounted.]
Some of these votes are relatively easy to assign, only making the picture even bleaker for the Tory whips.
The Social Democratic and Labour Party informally take the Labour whip and will almost certainly vote with them.
The Independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon, left the Ulster Unionists in 2010, after she disagreed with the party forming an alliance with the Conservatives.
She made clear she would support the re-election of a Labour Government and, after being re-elected as an Independent, has usually voted with Labour. It seems likely she’ll do so again.
The Alliance Party is the sister party of the Liberal Democrats in Northern Ireland, so likewise their MP, Naomi Long, will presumably vote with the opposition.
Eric Joyce has also continued to vote with Labour, so we can presume he’ll attend and vote with the opposition.
This gives the Opposition 320 against to 303 for.
So can the Conservatives find the extra 16 votes they need in the remaining diminished pool?
It looks highly unlikely.
Respect’s George Galloway is an equally lost hope having said he opposes the boundary changes, so the best Conservative whips can hope for is that he doesn’t turn up.
How Nadine Dorries will vote is a bit of a mystery. As of May 2012 she was strongly opposed to the boundary changes, understandably given they’d abolish her Bedfordshire constituency.
However, clearly eager to be readmitted to the Conservative Party she won’t want to antagonise the whips further. Perhaps they can hope she’ll abstain?
Or just possibly vote in favour, calculating she can afford to, knowing the changes won’t pass and that she probably won’t have a seat either way if she’s not able to stand as a Conservative candidate?
A Nationalist/Unionist Alliance?
There has been much speculation, as recently as last week in The Guardian, and the week before in The Telegraph, that David Cameron might still be able to win the vote by doing a deal with Northern Ireland’s Unionists and Scottish and Welsh nationalists.
We can see why Tory whips would consider the proposal, and why they’ve reportedly been ‘trawling for support’.
If theoretically they were able to attract the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party’s 8 MPs, the Scottish Nationalist Party’s 6, and Plaid Cymru’s 3, they could theoretically have a chance of squeaking the vote through against all the odds.
303 Conservative + 8 DUP + 6 SNP + 3 Plaid Cymru = 320 for
255 Labour + 57 Lib Dem + 4 SDLP + 1 Alliance + 1 Green + 1 Sylvia Hermon + 1 Eric Joyce = 320 against
This still assumes Nadine Dorries and George Galloway and Nadine Dorries at best abstain, and would require the Speaker to cast a tie-breaking vote for the first time in 20 years, which would also open a big constitutional can of worms over how he should apply Speaker Denison’s rule, but there is admittedly an anorexically slim chance.
So how likely is such an alliance? Doomed, it would seem on three counts.
Plaid Cymru MP, Jonathan Edwards, ‘speaking in a personal capacity’ in October 2012 tried to publically bargain with Downing Street, saying that his party would be ‘open to offers’ to support the boundary changes in return for ‘huge amounts of power devolved’ to the Welsh assembly, to make up for the cut in the number of Welsh MPs, and a ‘permanent Tory majority’ in Westminster.
However this rather cynical sounding deal hasn’t come to pass – two months later ITV were quoting an unnamed Plaid Cymru MP saying ‘It’s all over for boundary changes’.
The Guardian last week reported Labour were keeping in close contact with Plaid Cymru and hadn’t ‘detected any sign’ they intended to vote with the Government.
The Scottish Nationalist Party
There has been various speculation that the SNP’s six MPs might be more amenable to the government.
Mark Seddon in The Guardian discussed whether David Cameron and Alex Salmond would strike a deal ‘effectively reshaping the United Kingdom without any public debate’.
The plan being that the Prime Minister would offer the Scottish Parliament much greater powers, just short of full independence, in return for the SNP voting for the boundary changes; ‘According to former Conservative MEP John Stevens, Cameron could announce shortly after the European elections in 2014 that the Scottish referendum would be a choice between “devo max” and full independence.’
In terms of narrow political tactics both parties stand to benefit from anything that damages the Labour Party, and the SNP were also reportedly pleased that the changes would protect their existing six seats while potentially making more winnable.
There were reports up to last week that the SNP were ‘in talks’ with the Conservatives, but yesterday’s Scotsman quotes an SNP spokesman saying no deal had been done and that the party had ‘no intention’ of voting with the Conservatives.
The paper adds ‘There was speculation that the six SNP MPs will now abstain on the vote with the party refusing to say whether they would vote against.’ – which seems to be the best the Conservatives can hope for.
UPDATE: Word is SNP will not simply abstain but will vote against.
The Democratic Unionist Party
This leaves the Democratic Unionist Party looking like the Tory whips’ last hope of attracting any support outside their own party.
The Guardian speculated last week that they might vote in favour – ‘history has shown unionists have been willing to trade with the government in return for specific concessions’, and the Conservatives have clearly been bidding for their support.
However, DUP MP William McCrea has said he won’t vote in favour of the boundary changes, and called for them to be scrapped straight away to avoid wasting public money.
It’s unclear whether he’ll vote against or merely abstain, and the Conservatives may still have faint hopes of attracting his seven colleagues into the Aye lobby, but even this would seem most unlikely.
UPDATE: The Irish Times reports, as of this morning, that the DUP caucus of MPs had not yet met to decide how to vote. Word on the street is – i.e. I saw somebody tweet it but can’t remember who – that they will now certainly not vote in favour, but will either abstain or vote against.
These dismal figures, would leave the Tory Whips facing a result anywhere between
A ‘best’ case scenario
303 Conservative MPs + 1 Nadine Dorries + 7 DUP MPs vote for = 311
The SNP, Plaid Cymru, William McCrea, Eric Joyce, and George Galloway don’t vote.
255 Labour + 57 Lib Dems + 3 SDLP + 1 Alliance + 1 Green + 1 Sylvia Hermon vote against = 318
An opposition majority of 7.
Or a worst case scenario
303 Conservative MPs vote for
255 Labour + 57 Lib Dems + 8 DUP + 6 SNP + 3 Plaid Cymru + 3 SDLP + 1 Green + 1 Alliance + 1 Sylvia Hermon + 1 Eric Joyce + 1 George Galloway + 1 Nadine Dorries vote against = 338
A comfortable opposition majority of 35.
Under the highly unlikely ‘best case scenario’ you can see why the Conservatives want to press ahead with the vote, desperately hoping something will turn up, or that they’ll be saved, as Government’s have been before, by poor attendance from the opposition.
Though they might hope that a few Labour MPs won’t actually turn up for the vote, this seems unlikely given how important this is to Labour, and their briefing The Guardian that the vote would be close.
Mark Seddon also argued that ‘the Tories will probably be able to buy off some Liberal Democrat MPs threatened with extinction with a place in the Lords or on a quango’. Even taking into account the fact that some Lib Dem MPs could personally see their constituencies become safer under the changes, it seems unlikely even the most pro-Conservative Lib Dem (David Laws springs to mind) would be willing to risk the fury of their colleagues by doing the Conservatives a favour.
Most will probably relish a rare chance to vent months of lingering resentments against their Coalition allies. Though it’ll be interesting to see whether any of the 57 fail to turn up for the vote.
David Cameron also reportedly suggested, presumably in joke, that the whips could ‘lock a Lib Dem in the loo’ during the vote – but it looks like an awful lot of Lib Dems would have to find themselves mysteriously trapped before it altered the outcome.
Even if by some miracle opposition MPs don’t turn up, or the Conservatives are able to tempt the DUP, SNP and Plaid into the Aye lobby, to give them a wafer thin majority, there’s another rather large problem.
Many Conservative MPs themselves hate the boundary changes and would like to see them defeated.
The Tory Rebels?
It seems at least a couple, and potentially many more, Tory MPs are ready to defy their party over this.
As Isabel Hardman noted in The Spectator, Glyn Davies, MP for Montgomeryshire, used the modern form of political dissent – a blog – to announce he was considering voting against, saying if his constituency were carved up ‘The outcome would be so horrific I simply couldn’t carry on’.
Apparently he hasn’t however decided whether to vote against or simply abstain.
The BBC’s Welsh politics correspondent, David Cornock also writes ‘As I understand it, at least two other Welsh Tory MPs have serious doubts about the plans’.
Given the Conservatives only have 7 other MPs in Wales, 2 of them Ministers, it shouldn’t be too hard for a journalist how really cared to find out who these are – I’d think David Davies, MP for Monmouth would be a good bet for one.
Clearly the Davies are a rebellious breed, as Philip Davies, MP for Shipley, has also told The Telegraph he’s always opposed the changes ‘on a matter of principle’ as he disagrees with reducing the number of MPs.
While another near name-sake David Davis, MP for Haltemprice and Howden and David Cameron’s former rival for the leadership, tells the same paper ‘I shall probably vote against.’
Fellow Northern MP, and another regular rebel, Andrew Percy of Brigg and Goole has also said he’ll ‘fight against’ the changes which ‘should be scrapped’, so can presumably be counted in the No camp.
The Telegraph also says ‘Three more MPs are also said to be preparing to defy Tory whip’. Might these be the same three MP for Cornish seats, George Eustace, Sheryll Murray and Sarah Newton who previously opposed the changes?
It’s also probably safe to assume another South-West MP Geoffrey Cox, who represents Torridge and West Devon, will could vote against, given he told the BBC in October ‘These are the zombie proposals. They are the walking dead proposals which will never see the light of day’.
Rory Stewart, the exotic MP for Penrith and the Border, has also said he was pleased the Lords voted to delay the boundary changes until 2018 as he wants to continue representing the same constituency. It doesn’t sound like he’ll vote for with any enthusiasm.
Perhaps Mark Field, who has previously called the boundary changes disruptive, and would see changes to his Cities of London and Westminster seat, might also be tempted to vote against, while South Derbyshire MP Heather Wheeler has said she would be ‘hugely disappointed’ if the changes to her seat go ahead.
Even if there are no other Conservative rebels, this makes at least 11 MPs who can’t be counted as certain to vote with the party, taking the votes they can definitely muster in favour down to 292.
Against an opposition of anywhere between at the very least 318, and – if all MPs from minor parties and unhappy Conservatives, including the mysterious Welsh pair, vote against – 351.
This means we could see the ‘Government’ losing tonight by anything between 7 votes and 59.
Of course the result will probably be somewhere in the middle, and nothing’s certain until the tellers read out the result, but it would seem Labour’s talk of a ‘close’ vote is merely managing expectations, and the Conservatives could be about to lose very badly indeed.
Some, or rather most, might question why anyone would take any notice of a single parliamentary defeat, and indeed there’s no immediate impact beyond some embarrassing headlines and a further blow to Conservatives’ morale. But in the long term the outcome of this vote will be very important.
Fighting the next election on the current boundaries could make all the difference in a close contest to who wins, and to the make-up of the next Government.
As The New Statesman says ‘Note the date – 29 January 2013 – it may well be remembered as the day that the Tories’ hopes of outright victory in 2015 finally ended.’
UPDATE – The Result: The final result was 292 for – 334 against, so an opposition majority of 42. Not the absolute worst it could be but a pretty bad day for the Conservative Whips.
Tim Shippman from The Daily Mail tweets that Conservative David Davis (the English one), Philip Davies, and John Barron and Richard Shepherd whom I didn’t predict voted with the opposition.
According to the Labour Whips Office on twitter Andrew Percy and Glyn Davies eventually abstained.
Ministers William Hague, Ken Clarke and Helen Grant all missed the vote. I knew William Hague was abroad but had ignored this as I’d assumed Ministers away on Government business would be paired – but maybe not in such a contentious vote?
Intrguingly the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman spotted Tory Minister ‘Grant Shapps deep in conversation with Nadine Dorries who walks off with him into the lobbies’ – it’ll be interesting to see if he managed to entice her into the Aye lobby, or whether she subsequently broke away.
Tim Shipman also captures some of the prevailing feeling tweeting: ‘Labour cheers as they win the next election’.
I’ll be interesting (for anyone who’s read this far down the post) to see just how MPs voted when the full division lists are published, but we can assume given the low number in the Aye lobby Conservatives failed to convince a significant number of their own MPs to vote with them, let alone any from minor parties.
I’ve posted about the final result here if you just can’t wait for more excitement.