U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to press on with a parliamentary vote on redrawing electoral boundaries after his Liberal Democrat allies said they’d oppose the plan in a dispute over constitutional reform.
“We want the boundary change vote to go ahead,” Cameron told reporters during a visit to Wales today.
Coalition tensions escalated yesterday after Deputy Prime Nick Clegg said he will order Liberal Democrat lawmakers to vote against the proposal in retaliation for rank-and-file Conservatives derailing his plans to overhaul the House of Lords. Clegg said the Tories had “broken the contract” made with his party during the coalition negotiations of 2010.
The Liberal Democrat threat may deliver a fatal blow to Conservative hopes of winning an outright majority at the next election due in 2015 as boundary change is also opposed by the Labour Party. The proposed realignment could see the Tories gain as many as 20 seats in the House of Commons, according to Anthony Wells, associate director of pollster YouGov Plc.
“There is not a single policy that can now deliver them 20 extra seats,” Wells said. “They’ve blown it.”
Clegg’s announcement, made at news conference in London yesterday following a telephone call with Cameron, plunged relations between the two parties to the lowest ebb since they came to power two years ago and cast fresh doubt on whether the alliance can survive for three more years.
‘Pick and Choose’
“Clearly I cannot permit a situation where Conservative rebels can pick and choose the parts of the contract they like, while Liberal Democrat MPs are bound to the entire agreement,” Clegg said.
The review of parliamentary boundaries is designed to reduce the number of lawmakers in the Commons, Parliament’s lower house, to 600 from 650 and create seats with roughly equal numbers of voters. The Tories would have won 299 seats, just short of a majority, if the May 2010 election had been contested on the proposed new boundaries, according to Wells.
“If Cameron doesn’t get the proposed boundary changes through Parliament, the chances of the Conservatives winning a majority at the next election are dramatically reduced,” Mark Wickham-Jones, professor of politics at Bristol University, said in an interview. “It’s also going to make day-to-day management of the coalition much tougher.”
Nothing to Offer
The decision to abandon attempts to introduce a largely elected upper chamber of Parliament until at least 2015 is a further blow for Clegg, who in 2011 lost a referendum to change the voting system in general elections. It means he will face voters in 2015 without having delivered any the constitutional changes he promised and having reneged on other pre-election commitments such a pledge not to increase tuition fees.
Cameron, who has been seeking to get the government back on track after a series of policy U-turns and months of bleak economic news, faces a test of his declining popularity after a Conservative lawmaker said yesterday she was quitting U.K. politics and moving to join her husband in New York.
The decision by Louise Mensch will trigger a special election in her parliamentary district of Corby and East Northamptonshire in central England, which she narrowly won from the Labour Party in 2010. Nationally, Cameron has the backing of 33 percent of voters compared with 44 percent for Labour leader Ed Miliband, according to an Aug. 4 poll of 1,787 people by YouGov. Clegg had 8 percent.
Clegg dismissed suggestions the rift over the House of Lords could cause the coalition to collapse, saying the overriding priority of both parties is to reduce the budget deficit and pull the economy out of recession. Asked by reporters about relations with Cameron, Clegg replied they are “fine, thank you very much.”
Cameron said dropping Lords reform would give the government “the space to make the economy the government’s number one priority.”
Outside the top ministerial team, Conservative lawmakers expressed anger at the Liberal Democrat threat. “Apart from keeping ministers in office, what is the coalition now for?” Douglas Carswell wrote on his Twitter account. His Tory colleague, Stewart Jackson, wrote that the coalition would be “finished” if the Liberal Democrats voted down boundary changes.
The House of Lords Reform Bill involved replacing the current 816-member chamber, made up of political appointees, hereditary nobility and Church of England bishops, with a smaller chamber of mainly elected members serving a single 15-year term.
Almost a third of Conservative lawmakers sided with Labour last month in voting against fast-tracking the bill through Parliament. With Cameron unable to win round Tory rebels, the bill faced a “slow death” at the hands of its opponents, Clegg said.