The Zombie Boundary Review Staggers On

The Zombie Boundary Review Staggers On

The Boundary Commissions for England, Scotland and Wales published their revised proposals for new parliamentary constituencies on 17 October, sending MPs and commentators to the maps and calculators. The initial proposals made earlier in the year were materially altered in more than half the proposed constituencies, as the Commissions tried to reflect the results of the open consultation exercise they had carried out over the spring and summer. Regrettably, the Commissions have also tinkered with and usually lengthened many constituency names. By far the biggest casualty of the boundary review would be Boris Johnson in Uxbridge & South Ruislip (Hillingdon & Uxbridge under the new proposals). London’s decisive pro-Labour swing since 2010 has made it marginal already, and under the new boundaries Labour could well have been ahead in 2017. David Davis’s stronghold of Haltemprice & Howden is abolished entirely, part joining a Labour marginal in Hull and part paired with his colleague Andrew Percy’s seat. The third Brexiteer, Liam Fox, need not worry as his North Somerset seat is unchanged. The changes in Cumbria are probably enough to deprive former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron of his Westmorland & Lonsdale seat, and John Woodcock’s mind-boggling win in Barrow & Furness would be reversed (as would in all probability the results in Labour’s two most ambitious gains of 2017, Canterbury and Kensington). The revised map is by and large an improvement on the initial map in terms of matching up with how people think about local community ties, but the maximum 5 per cent variation either side of the average constituency electorate (and the English Commission’s policy of using wards as building blocks if at all possible) means that improving boundaries in one locality will tend to worsen them in another locality, and there is no agreed standard to optimise the overall proposals. Barring a change in the law, the boundary review will trundle along according to the timetable set out in the 2011 Act. The Boundary Commissions are creatures of statute, and do not take orders from the government. There will be a further consultation period over the next few weeks and then the absolutely final recommendations for 600 new constituencies. The implementation order must be laid before Parliament in autumn 2018. Whether MPs will vote for it is doubtful, but for now this zombie review staggers onwards. The boundary review in Northern Ireland is the most important factor, should the government let the process continue. The DUP hated the initial proposals for the province, which reduced the number of MPs from 18 to 17 and redrew the boundaries along a pattern that was strikingly good for Sinn Fein. Unless the Northern Ireland boundary commission comes back with...

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Seasons of scandal

Seasons of scandal

Westminster’s sexual harassment scandal is the fourth systemic crisis in recent decades – after Poulson, cash for questions and expenses.

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Westland – did the helicopter firm really bring Thatcher to the brink?

Westland – did the helicopter firm really bring Thatcher to the brink?

  From the perspective of hindsight, the middle term of the Thatcher government in 1983-87 may look like plain sailing. It did not seem like it at the time; it was the parliament of the ‘banana skin’ – a term then used to describe a number of unrelated mishaps which tripped up several ministers. The biggest, slipperiest banana skin of them all was the Westland Affair, the one that led Margaret Thatcher to speculate on 27 January 1986 that: I may not be Prime Minister by six o’clock tonight. How did the business arrangements of a helicopter manufacturing company in Yeovil bring Thatcher apparently so close to the edge? She even stepped back at one point after a long meeting between senior ministers and marvelled: Do you realise we have spent three hours of precious time discussing a company with a capitalisation of only £30 million? What is the world coming to? Westland was in financial trouble in 1985 and was looking for a commercial partner so that it could sort out its problems. There were two options: a tie-up with the US helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky (through its parent company United Technology Industries, UTC) or a European consortium. The Thatcher government was divided, in an increasingly public, embarrassing and vitriolic argument, on the best course of action. The main disruptive element was Michael Heseltine as Secretary of State for Defence, who actively supported the European option and worked hard for it, politically and commercially. Heseltine feared that Sikorsky was interested in Westland because it could be used to get a piece of the enormous Al-Yamamah arms deal agreed between Saudi Arabia and the UK in 1985, which allegedly mentioned an order of 80 helicopters. Defence procurement – the very word has a slight whiff of the illicit – has never been a simple or transparent industry and Westland was a cork bobbing on the surface above deeper currents. It should not have been a big political issue. The government professed neutrality, although Thatcher herself had sympathy for the US option. But it worked on fault lines that were already there. Although Heseltine had been a good Thatcherite in many ways, particularly in the 1983 election on defence, their personal styles clashed. Many suspected Heseltine was looking for a reason to have a ‘good resignation’ as part of a long term career plan. A confrontation about something was clearly in the air, and it coalesced around Westland. Heseltine grew frustrated in late 1985 that the future of Westland was not being discussed in Cabinet, and Thatcher felt that Heseltine was blatantly ignoring collective Cabinet responsibility. In retrospect Thatcher should have sacked Heseltine for insubordination in December 1985. She would have...

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Boundary changes

Boundary changes

A few weeks ago the Times – in the person of its excellent political correspondent Laura Pitel – asked if I could have a look at the implications of the forthcoming changes to constituency boundaries which will be argued over between 2016 and 2018 and – barring eventualities – implemented in 2020 for the new election. The political map of Britain changed abruptly in 2015, thanks to the SNP landslide in Scotland, the Liberal Democrats’ disaster and the pattern of Conservative/ Labour swing that ended up making the gradient of the mountain Labour must climb much steeper. I produced a fairly ‘quick and dirty’ version of what the new boundaries might look like, without going into too much detail because the electorate numbers on which the allocation of seats will be based are going to be different in December when the definitive numbers are taken. One cannot simply take the results of the previous aborted review in 2011-13 forward either, for the same reason, although the detail of that review and the arguments that found favour in the revised proposals are of interest in seeing how the Boundary Commissions might approach their new task. By all accounts, the Boundary Commission for England (BCE) will be rather more willing to split wards this time around, which might well reduce the number of cross-border and bizarre seats, but creates problems of its own. Laura Pitel’s article is here (£) and if I do say so myself is well worth reading. The underlying calculations are published here. The headline finding is that the Conservatives benefit slightly from the changes, losing 19 seats (compared to 20 for Labour and 11 for the other parties), which in a smaller 600-seat parliament would increase their majority by 12 seats. Current number of MPs Number of MPs after boundary changes Change in number of MPs Percentage change UK 650 600 -50 -7.7% England (including Isle of Wight) 533 501 -32 -6.0% Wales 40 29 -11 -27.5% Scotland (including Islands) 59 54 -5 -8.5% Northern Ireland 18 16 -2 -11.1% English regions         East of England 58 56 -2 -3.4% Isle of Wight 1 2 +1 +100% South East (not IoW) 83 81 -2 -2.4% South West 55 53 -2 -3.6% SOUTH 197 192 -5 -2.5% LONDON 73 70 -3 -4.1% East Midlands 46 43 -3 -6.5% West Midlands 59 53 -6 -10.2% MIDLANDS 105 96 -9 -8.6% North East 29 25 -4 -13.8% North West 75 68 -7 -9.3% Yorkshire & The Humber 54 50 -4 -7.4% NORTH 158 143 -15 -9.5%   The new rules (legislated in 2011 but postponed until this parliament): The number of seats will be 600. Four seats have...

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The TV debate: Colourless green ideas sleep furiously

The TV debate: Colourless green ideas sleep furiously

Seeing a seven-person television debate as a horse race – and a particularly Alice-in-Wonderland style horse race where there’s no agreed finish line, the volume of cheers from the audience is taken into account and all the runners take it in turns to stop for a bit – is just as ridiculous as saying that a door handle hates you or that you saw the King of France driving a train on the Victoria Line.

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