I’m grateful to Glyn Davies for setting out so clearly the background to the debate over the number of MPs and their constituency boundaries.
As he points out, at the last Westminster election, the Tories committed to reducing the number from 650 to 585. This was, of course, a wholly arbitrary number (as indeed is the current 650), but reducing the number of politicians is always a popular idea. (Whether there are enough electors who believed that the turkeys actually would vote for Christmas to make much difference to the election is another matter entirely.)
Never to be outdone in the populism states, the Lib Dems promised to go further and cut the number to 500. It’s a nice round number, but just as arbitrary as either 585 or 600. And of course they never really believed at the time that they would be anywhere near having the power to implement anything that they had said.
In the event, the election was indecisive, and a coalition was formed. In so far as one can reasonably argue that the manifesto pledges of governing parties represent some sort of mandate for government action, it’s fair to conclude that the electorate had given them a mandate to reduce the number of MPs to another arbitrary number, somewhere between 500 and 585.
So, in the coalition negotiations, they duly agreed on another entirely arbitrary number, this time selecting 600. Perhaps they thought that was splitting the difference – if their approach to doing hard sums on economic issues is anything to go by, it’s certainly a credible theory and the only surprise would be that they didn’t suggest that 700 was half way between 500 and 585.
It could, of course, simply be another example of how the Lib Dems are a moderating influence on Conservative policies. If they happen to moderate them even further away from Lib Dem policies, I’m sure that’s just an unfortunate accident.
In any event, it seemed there were some caveats on the whole deal which never actually got recorded in the coalition package. The Lib Dems’ unstated caveat was that the Tories mustn’t upset them by rejecting a wholly unrelated proposal to reform the House of Lords. And the unstated caveat of many Tories seems to have been that the changes shouldn’t actually threaten the boundaries or territorial integrity of their own constituencies. Having equal numbers of electors is fine apparently, but only so long as it’s achieved by carving up somebody else’s seat.
I don’t entirely disagree with the point Glyn makes about the House of Lords’ intervention being a case of making an inappropriate amendment to a different proposal, although it is a point of procedure which will only really interest the anoraks. It does however look like pretty small beer in procedural terms when compared to the sophistry of the coalition partners themselves.
When all’s said and done, enough turkeys have found their excuse not to vote for Christmas. Not just yet anyway.