Henry Hill: Sturgeon distracts her troops with promises of another independence ‘prospectus’

9 Sep

Sturgeon starts another independence push

It must be coming up to the Scottish National Party conference, because Nicola Sturgeon is talking up her administration’s plans for independence again. But although the First Minister has apparently promised a “detailed prospectus”, according to the FT, she hasn’t gone so far as to give any dates about when she’s going to table the necessary legislation.

Funny that. Sturgeon knows that the Government, quite rightly, is not going to grant her permission to hold another vote in this Parliament. But she needs some read meat to keep her increasingly fractious activists in line. Hence yet another study, yet another commission, more delaying tactics.

Not that those efforts are even going especially well. This week, it emerged that one of the First Minister’s new hand-picked economic advisers warned that separating from the United Kingdom would be “Brexit times ten”. Professor Mark Blythe, in an interview conducted days before his new role was announced, is the last thing Sturgeon needed as she tees her members up to debate the proposition that a hard border with England could “favourably benefit” Scotland.

Grace periods on Northern Irish trade extended indefinitely

Back in March, I wrote about how the Prime Minister’s decision to appoint David Frost to the Northern Irish trade brief signalled that the Government was much more serious than some people seemed prepared to credit about securing meaningful change to the Protocol.

Autumn is here and so far, it looks as if that reading was right – and perhaps Brussels is starting to realise it.

Why else would the EU have agreed to the UK indefinitely extending the grace periods which are allowing fresh produce from mainland Britain to cross unhindered into Ulster, in defiance of Brussels’ ‘external frontier’ at the Irish Sea?

Perhaps they have realised, as I noted earlier this week, that it’s no good demanding that the Government ‘honour what it signed’ when taking preventative measures to prevent ‘diversion of trade’ – for example, forcing Northern Irish supermarkets to find new, EU-based supply chains – is right there in the text of Article 16? Over the summer, senior sources told me that London’s red line was maintaining food supply chains across the Irish Sea. Hence the earlier, unilateral extension of grace periods.

Some critics wondered why, if the Government was serious, it didn’t immediately trigger Article 16. But doing so precipitately would make it look as if the UK were merely spoiling for a fight. Instead, the months of extensions have simultaneously demonstrated Britain’s seriousness about finding a low-key resolution and the complete absence of any ill-effects on the Single Market from the unfettered flow of British produce.

Of course, its a big leap from a fudge such as this to actually re-opening and renegotiating the Protocol. But patience is baked in to this Fabian strategy. By consenting to an indefinite extension, it looks as if Brussels understands that the Protocol can’t operate as currently drafted without diversion of trade – and it explicitly does not permit diversion of trade.

Welsh boundary review proposals published

The BBC reports on the publication of the proposed new parliamentary constituencies for Wales. The principality’s representation at Westminster is being cut from 40 to 32 as part of the Government’s push to equalise constituency boundaries.

If the new boundaries went ahead in their current form it could leave several Conservative MPs scrapping for new seats, with 2019 gains Clwyd South and Vale of Clwyd getting absorbed by other seats as well as Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, held by Simon Hart, the Welsh Secretary.

The changes could also hit Plaid Cymru quite hard, with several of their seats making unhelpful acquisitions from neighbouring constituencies.

It’s too soon to judge how the boundary review will impact the next election – but it’s fun to try

8 Jun

There was some excitement in this morning’s papers about the impact of the proposed reforms to constituency boundaries. Suggestions that Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, might lose his seat have made headlines.

Expert psephologists are being rather more cautious about projecting any partisan impact of the changes. These are, after all, only initial proposals. Whilst MPs won’t get an opportunity to vote the Boundary Commission’s eventual map down, the parties do now have an opportunity to feed back.

Historically, the Conservatives have not always handled this process well. Anthony Seldon, in his book Major: A Political Life, noted how in the 1990s: “weak local organisation and coordination led to the fumbling of the opportunity presented by the Boundary Commission review.”

With discipline breaking down as the post-Thatcher era began, apparently there was at least one instance of two associations turning up to a boundary meeting with separate barristers. As a result, an anticipated 40-seat gain for the Tories ended up being a mere five.

There may be a lesson there for today. Not because of a similar risk of association infighting – the process is, like everything else, much more centrally organised these days, and is in the hands of the veteran Roger Pratt at CCHQ. But because there’s also another reason not to jump to conclusions about “the biggest shake-up of boundaries in decades”, which is that the old logic of the reforms has been rather overtaken by the 2019 election.

When the plans were first mooted under David Cameron (alongside the unsaleable intention to cut the number of seats), equalising constituency sizes hurt Labour, which won large numbers of disproportionately small seats, and thus boosted the Conservatives. But with the Tories having broken through in a lot of those seats at the last election, that happy outcome is now much less certain.

And when we examined this question as part of our ‘Securing the Majority’ series last summer, some MPs also warned that a serious boundary shake-up could wipe out the first-term dividend newly-elected parliamentarians often enjoy.

So a full picture of the partisan impact of the changes will have to wait. But it nonetheless interesting to take two snapshots of the battlefield – one in the ‘Red Wall’, and one in the ‘Blue Wall’ – and prognosticate a little. Follow along at home with this very handy interactive map, courtesy of Election Maps UK.

Blue Wall

For the latter, let’s look at true-blue Buckinghamshire. All seven seats here returned Conservative MPs at the last election, and most by comfortable margins. What impact are the proposed changes likely to have?

Overall the county gains a seat, rising to eight. This has been done by carving the new seat of Princes Risborough out of the southern parts of the Aylesbury and Buckingham constituencies.

Despite this Milton Keynes notionally loses one, with Ben Everitt’s seat of Milton Keynes North, already a county constituency, shedding its remaining territory in the town and becomes Newport Pagnell, likely to be rock solid. Meanwhile Buckingham would absorb parts of the old Milton Keynes South to become Buckingham and Bletchley. Given that Greg Smith enjoys a majority of over 20,000, this is unlikely to cost him much sleep.

Milton Keynes South, what’s left of it, becomes just Milton Keynes. As a more urban seat it is likely to be closer to Labour than it was, although Iain Stewart’s comfortable majority of 6,944 ought to see him through.

Aylesbury changes shape quite dramatically, shedding a swath of southern territory. The new seat is much more concentrated on the town itself, and may also therefore be more competitive for Labour.

Both Chesham and Amersham and Wycombe remain roughly the same, although the latter becomes ‘High Wycombe’ – a rare example of the Boundary Commission’s enthusiasm for longer names being a force for good. It is the county’s most marginal seat and will probably continue trending away from the Party. On the other hand, Beaconsfield becomes Marlow and South Buckinghamshire for no obvious reason.

Overall then, little for CCHQ to complain out. These changes might put one or two seats slightly closer to the opposition, but this is probably offset by creating a new, quite safe Tory seat.

Red Wall

Now let’s look at an offensive battlefield: South Yorkshire. The Conservatives made a handful of gains here in 2019, but there is plenty of scope for growth – especially in the wake of the dramatic results at the locals, which saw the Party go from zero seats to 20 on Rotherham Council.

According to local sources, “winning all three Rotherham seats on these boundaries is a decent prospect.” Minor changes to Alexander Stafford’s seat of Rother Valley are unlikely to make much of an impact, Rotherham itself becomes “slightly more winnable”, and Wentworth and Dearne loses the Dearnes (the area with the weakest Tory vote) and is reborn as Rawmarsh and Conisbrough.

Doncaster Central (Labour majority: 2,278) becomes Doncaster Town by taking part of Don Valley that is “very good for us” – in fact local Tories suggest that “on these boundaries we should be looking to win it.” The consequence is that Don Valley itself may be harder to hold, although Nick Fletcher should probably be OK. Likewise, minor changes to Penistone and Stocksbridge are apparently unlikely to cause Miriam Cates much difficulty.

Elsewhere there is churn but less change: the rejigged boundaries in Barnsley will apparently produce broadly similar results to the status quo, as will alterations to Ed Miliband’s seat in Doncaster North (although this remains winnable). Likewise, nobody seems to expect any exciting results from a relatively conservative reshuffling of Sheffield.

On the face of it, a rosy outlook for the Party. But of course, South Yorkshire is an area where the old electoral map survived the last election. There are others, such as South Wales. But the impact of the reforms could be quite different elsewhere.

Amanda Milling: The Boundary Review will strengthen our democracy by ensuring that every vote counts the same

8 Jun

Amanda Milling is the Member of Parliament for Cannock Chase and co-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

Our democracy allows eligible voters up and down the country the chance to have their voice heard by voting for a representative they believe will best make decisions on their behalf.

But crucially it gives everyone eligible to vote, 18 and over, an equal vote and an equal say. Or, at least, it should do.

However, the constituency boundaries as they presently stand fail to ensure that a vote counts the same in one area as it does in another, even just a few miles away.

This is because the present constituency boundaries are based on data that is already 20 years old. Without the changes to the boundaries, by the time of the next election this data would be a quarter of a century out of date and by the time the next government conducted a review and implementing boundary change, the information will be more than three decades out of date.

At the moment some constituencies have twice as many electors as others. Bristol, having over 100,000, whist the smallest, Stoke-on-Trent Central – has a little over 55,000. It is also true that after the 2017 election, our party would have won a significantly greater number of seats if constituency sizes were equalised and updated, removing the unfair bias in the outdated system.

There is almost unanimous acknowledgement that the status quo is neither fair, nor sustainable.

The Boundary Review that is being undertaken by the independent and judge-led Boundary Commissions, with extensive public consultation, is looking to reset all of this.

This review isn’t about the party building a power base in any part of the country, nor to make it harder for opposition parties to make gains, but about ensuring that Parliamentary boundaries are equally sized and based on up to date figures.

By making sure we have Parliamentary boundaries which finally take account of the huge population change which has taken place in parts of the country, we are ensuring that each constituent will know that their vote counts the same as their neighbour’s. It also delivers on our promise at the 2019 General Election to strengthen our democracy by ensuring every vote counts the same.

I know that for some this review could bring unexpected change. Representing a seat is a unique privilege, and often a very personal one. I have represented Cannock Chase for six years and still feel pride in the community each time my train from London pulls into the station.

Each of us who are MPs will know like the back of our hands every community hall and summer fête. We will see families in the supermarket who we have supported and we will have listened to campaign groups on whose behalf we have spoken out in the House of Commons.

No one wants to lose any constituent who they have been privileged to represent and who has been part of their community.

MPs are rightly proud, and fiercely defensive of their own patch where they have canvassed doors and worked hard for years, so the thought of change at a local level will raise concerns, even if we can all broadly agree to the concept of the changes.

Equally, for long-standing Conservative associations built on boundaries that have been in place for decades it will require some adjustment. Associations take pride in their area, in their membership, and many still operate active ward associations.

But I am confident that our hardworking and committed association officers have what it takes to adapt — and we are committed to supporting them along the way.

Over the course of this pandemic, I have seen fantastic examples of associations being at the forefront of adapting and improving, working together on events and fundraising. I have joined scores of Zoom quizzes, welcomed colleagues as guest speakers and met hundreds of members and activists at Q&As. And we will continue to adapt.

For some these proposed changes will be challenging and that’s why we will be listening and working with colleagues in Parliament and across the party to hear any of the concerns people may have.

As the consultation period begins on these initial proposals we need to come together to collectively work out how we can make the proposals work.  We will make formal submissions in response to the Boundary Commissions initial proposals. MPs, associations, organisations and individuals will also all be able to make representations during the consultation phases. I have no doubt there will be changes from the initial proposals as additional local concerns and counter proposals are taken into account.

These equal and updated boundaries are sensible and necessary. They are the consequence of a manifesto which was written with fairness and uniting the whole country written into every pledge. They make sure everyone’s vote from Cumbria to Canterbury, Dover to Darlington carries equal weight at a General Election.

The Conservative Party will now collectively engage with the independent Boundary Commissions’ extensive consultation process, to ensure all parts of the United Kingdom are fairly represented in the UK Parliament.

Securing the Majority? 1) Equalising boundaries

31 Aug

After the 2019 election, we suggested five ways that Boris Johnson could help to secure the Party’s electoral position as part of our Majority series. This was the first. Eight months on, how are they doing?

– – –

Securing The Majority? 1) Equalising boundaries

Before the Covid-19 crisis swept all before it, the Government had started to make progress on boundary reform. Specifically, it had announced its intention to scrap the legal requirement for it to cut the number of constituencies to 600.

This was first floated by David Cameron as a way to ‘cut the cost of politics’ in response to the expenses scandal, but was making the whole thing a very difficult sell to MPs, who didn’t want to end up caught in a game of musical chairs ahead of the next election. There is also an argument that MPs will have more to do once all the powers ceded to the European Union have been repatriated.

What impact this will have on the ’tilt’ of the new battlefield isn’t clear. As we noted previously, some projections suggested a stronger Tory win on the proposed new boundaries. But with so many seats in the ‘Blue Wall’ held by first-term incumbents, the churn created by a major review could wipe out the typical new-MP electoral dividend and undermine the defence in 2023 or 2024.

Conversely, some analysts have suggested that the new electoral geography created by the collapse of the ‘Red Wall’ reduces the partisan advantage for the Conservatives of equalising constituency sizes (which remains a manifesto commitment), as they now hold many of the under-sized seats which used to give Labour an advantage.

Either way, with a strong overall majority and a full parliamentary term ahead of them, the Government ought to have no excuse not to finally get this long-delayed review over the line. The relevant Bill receives its Lords committee stage on September 8.