Tory fury as Lib Dem peers join Labour to delay boundary review

Review delayed for five years, seriously damaging David Cameron's chances of winning overall majority in 2015

Coalition relations plummeted on Monday when the Liberal Democrats were accused by Conservatives of double crossing, cynicism, cheating and opportunism as Nick Clegg's peers joined Labour to delay a constituency boundary review that had been likely to give the Tories 20 extra seats.

The review will now be delayed for five years, leaving the next election to be fought on the existing constituency boundaries, and seriously damaging David Cameron's chances of winning an overall majority in 2015.

The novelist Lord (Michael) Dobbs was one of many Tories to lay into their coalition partner, accusing Clegg of "a great political sulk", after the Liberal Democrats withdrew support in retribution for the failure to complete a deal to reform the House of Lords last year. Dobbs said Liberal Democrats should hang their heads in shame at bringing politics into disrepute.

Lord Forsyth, the former Tory cabinet minister, was even more strident, saying: "What we are seeing today is that the deputy prime minister is going from cross to double cross, because that is what this is – it is a double cross." He said Lib Dems were seeking "to gerrymander the British constitution for party political purposes".

Cameron will make a final desperate effort in the Commons before the end of the month to reverse the Lords decision, but has only a fragile hope that he can offer something to nationalist MPs in order to win their support, which is needed to defeat the Liberal Democrat/Labour majority. If Cameron fails to win over the Democratic Unionists or Scottish Nationalists, he will be defeated in the Commons, so irrevocably depriving him of a boundary review that most experts believe would give the Tories an extra 15 to 25 seats.

If Cameron is sure he will lose the vote in the Commons, he has the last ditch option of withdrawing the electoral registration bill altogether. This would mean the boundary reviews could be completed, and give him time to see if they could force them through in a Commons vote before the 2015 election. But all parties need to know soon on what boundaries the 2015 election will be fought.

The boundary review, already under way, is designed to equalise the number of voters in each constituency, ending a bias that tends to favour Labour MPs with smaller-sized constituencies.

The five-year delay to the review was supported by crossbenchers, Labour and Liberal Democrats on the basis that plans to equalise the number of voters in constituencies should be delayed until the implications of a current major switch from household voter registration to individual registration had been absorbed.

But behind the argument was also a cold Liberal Democrat calculation that the party had been foolish ever to accept the boundary review as part of a wider constitutional deal expected to include an elected Lords.

Clegg was warned privately a change to boundaries would endanger the re-election of even more of his 57 MPs than is already the case, since Liberal Democrat MPs are particularly dependent on incumbency for their re-election.

Clegg has been open that he had supported equalisation of boundaries in principle, but said months ago that he would exact retribution against the Tories for failing to back a deal to introduce an elected House of Lords.

The Tories countered that they had only promised to seek consensus on Lords reform, and not to force through the reforms. Clegg will be hoping that the Conservatives will recognise the cold politics of the vote and not seek their own retribution, so leading to a dangerous chain reaction of tit for tat between the parties.

Tory peers were furious with the Liberal Democrats because the cross-party ploy to delay the outcome of the boundary review until after the election was introduced against the advice of clerks in the Lords. The clerks had advised that it was against procedure to introduce an amendment on boundaries, an issue covered by previous legislation, to a bill focusing on individual registration of voters.

The former Commons speaker, Lady Boothroyd, advised peers that it was in order to ignore the clerks' advice.

But Dobbs accused the Liberal Democrats of entering a hall of shame and said it was an "invention" that there was a link between constituency boundaries and House of Lords reform.

"The truth is that this is solely, sadly and cynically because the deputy prime minister didn't get his way on House of Lords reform," he said.

"Now he wants to exact a little retribution. It's nothing less than a great political sulk."

He read out a series of quotes from senior Liberal Democrats supporting the equalisation of constituency boundaries.

Home Office minister Lord Taylor of Holbeach accused the Liberal Democrats of disingenuous opportunism and riding roughshod over advice of parliamentary clerks.


Patrick Wintour, political editor

The GuardianTramp

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