The Oliver Observations

The Boundary Changes Showdown: The Result

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I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest and non-sarcastic kind comments my last post, with its rather obsessive analysis of the parliamentary arithmetic of Tuesday’s vote on boundary changes, or the Electoral Registration and Administration Act (2013), received.
I was also pleased Andrew Sparrow kindly included it in his excellent Guardian Live Blog of the day’s events (I now have no ambitions left in life).

So, due to popular demand – i.e. no open dissent – because I’m still getting quite a bit of search engine traffic from people clearly after information about the vote, I thought I should update it with details of the result.

Philip Cowley, Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham and High Priest of parliamentary arithmetic, rebellions and back-bench behaviour, has already written two fine analyses the vote. In the first he addresses the vexed question of whether this can be described as a ‘Government defeat’, when part of the Government was clearly delighted to defeat the rest of it, while in the second he examines five more aspects of the result.

Intriguingly he notes that the Commons Authorities actually miscounted the result and therefore the Tellers – the MPs who announce the result declared the result as 292 votes for to 334 votes against, while in fact 335 MPs who went through the No lobby – meaning the Opposition’s majority was 43 rather than 42.
This doesn’t make as much difference as the occasion John Major’s Government lost in the Commons by one vote, to find later it was a miscount and they’d actually won, but it does show the result was even worse for the Conservatives than initially thought.

In terms of the way MPs actually voted, David Cameron’s much heralded plans to get MPs from minor parties to vote for the bill came to nothing.
Or not quite nothing as I was wrong to assume that Naomi Long, Alliance Party MP for East Belfast, would vote against, along with the Alliance’s sister party the Liberal Democrats, as she in fact became the only non-Conservative MP to vote with the government.
According to the best available source – Alliance Party members on twitter – this was because on principle the party believes in reducing the number of MPs.

Nadine Dorries, not technically a Conservative MP after having the whip withdrawn last year and presumably anxious to get back in the party’s good books, also voted for, leading to online mockery from Labour MPs.

As well as failing to attract support from outside the party, despite their appeals Conservative whips were unable to keep all their own MPs onside.
4 Conservative MPs voted with the Opposition – David Davis and Philip Davies, whom I’d predicted would, and John Baron and Richard Shepherd whom I hadn’t.
2 others on record as opposing the boundary changes – Glyn Davies and Andrew Percy – abstained, which in such a tightly whipped vote I think can fairly be counted as a rebellion.

Conservative whips could at least have comforted themselves over a brandy after the vote that the rebellion wasn’t even bigger.
Some Conservative MPs who’ve previously opposed the boundary changes (such as Geoffrey Cox) clearly voted in favour on the day. Perhaps such MPs had been won round by the strength of the arguments, or maybe felt they needed to be loyal seeing their party being done over by the devious Lib Dems. They might also have felt they could comfortably vote in favour, not wanting pointless rows with the whips or possible damage to career progression, safe in the knowledge that the changes had no chance of passing anyway. We can draw our own conclusions depending on our level of cynicism.

Five other Conservative MPs didn’t vote. Two, David Amess and Lee Scott [who I remember for his resignation as a PPS during the tuition fees vote], weren’t eligible to vote as they’d served on a Committee of the Whole House. I’m afraid my parliamentary knowledge fails me as to quite why this means they weren’t couldn’t vote – presumably they’d previously scrutinised the Bill and had therefore had their say, and therefore need to remain neutral.
(The latest edition of Erskine May’s Parliamentary Procedure is currently reduced to a mere £274.05 on Amazon if anyone really wants to know.)
Regardless of the obscure reason, they were joined as non-voters by Labour’s Katy Clark who also served on the Committee. (Thanks to the @LabourWhips‘ helpful twitter feed for this information.)

Three Ministers also missed the vote – William Hague, Ken Clarke and Helen Grant.

William Hague was in the United States hosting a farewell dinner for Hillary Clinton as she leaves the State Department.
As the only foreign country to have their offer to host a farewell event accepted, you can see why the Foreign Office wanted the Foreign Secretary in attendance rather than voting to redraw boundaries in Westminster. Though given Hillary Clinton’s fondness for David Miliband, perhaps they could have struck a deal where the two were paired and co-hosted the dinner?

A bit of digging reveals Ken Clarke was in Brazil as part of his new role as the Government’s roving trade envoy (or as some journalists have put it ‘Minister for not writing his memoirs’).

While Helen Grant, the Equalities Minister, was meeting Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty; either going AWOL as Labour MP Chris Bryant suggests, or being allowed to miss the vote as the whips knew it was already lost.

The opposition in contrast were at their full strength with all the 254 Labour MPs eligible to vote present, including two serving as tellers, and all 57 Liberal Democrat MPs – including the 9 months pregnant Jenny Willott [another MP who eventually resigned as a PPS over tuition fees] – turning up to vote against their Conservative Coalition partners.
They were joined by all 6 SNP MPs, 3 SDLP MPs, 3 Plaid Cymru MPs, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, Respect’s George Galloway, and the Independents Sylvia Hermon and Eric Joyce.

Only the Democratic Unionist Party weren’t at full strength – with 2 of their 8 MPs, Sammy Wilson and Jeffrey Donaldson not voting (perhaps absent in there Northern Ireland constituencies – where Wilson also serves in the Northern Ireland Assembly as Minister for Finance and Personnel in the Northern Ireland Executive?), while the remaining 6 joined the opposition.

And that concludes more than anybody could ever want to know about the boundary changes vote. The full division lists can be found in Hansard.

**

As Tim Shipman, The Daily Mail’s Deputy Political Editor reports in an article full of vintage vitriol, the vote has caused real resentment amongst Tory MPs towards their Coalition Colleagues, with much talk of Lib Dem betrayal in the air.

Given how big the defeat was, despite the time and effort committed to trying to force the new boundaries through, it’s hard to see how David Cameron’s authority, and hold over his own party isn’t damaged to some extent by this.
For example if you’re a Conservative Minister and want to vote against a measure you disagree with at some time in the future, why should you have to resign to do so when Liberal Democrat Ministers can remain it their posts while voting against Government Bills?

As the next election slowly hoves into view, and the tension both between and within the Coalition parties grows, we can’t rule out seeing more such split votes, and maybe even some new precedents for just how loyal Ministers have to be to Government policy.
Parliamentary arithmetic fans will be delighted.

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