The Lords (including Lib Dem ministers) have voted in favour of an amendment to the Electoral Registration Bill that bangs another nail into the coffin of the boundary review. The amendment changes the law so that instead of the boundary review having to report before this October, the commissions cannot report until after October 2018, killing the review for this Parliament.
The bill now returns to the Commons, where David Cameron has three choices:
1) He tries, and probably fails, to overturn the amendment in the Commons. Obviously this will be tricky to do with the Lib Dems supporting the amendment, it will lead to coalition friction by Conservative MPs seeing Lib Dem ministers voting against the government and keeping their jobs. It would, however, deliver Cameron’s promise fro last week of having a Commons vote on the boundaries…even if it is at one remove.
2) He withdraws the Bill, or tries to use the Parliament Act to pass it, as suggested in the Sunday Telegraph at the weekend. For our immediate purposes these are the same, the Electoral Registration Bill is withdrawn and reintroduced next session, after the Boundary Commissions have reported, meaning the Commons vote on implementing them will go ahead. Whether it is worthwhile messing up the passage of the Electoral Registration Bill when it looks extremely unlikely that the Commons would approve the new boundaries is a different question – it would at least mean that the recommendations were there ready for future implementation in the case of a Conservative majority after the next election, or if something entirely unexpected comes along to change minds. It also means the promise to have a proper Commons vote on implementing it is kept and the spectacle of Lib Dem ministers voting against the government is delayed for now.
3) They accept the boundaries are dead and accept the amendment, avoiding Lib Dem and Conservative ministers voting against each other and keeping the Electoral Registration Bill… but at the cost of failing to allow the Commons to vote on the matter (and in the eyes of Conservative backbenchers, giving into the Lib Dems). The third option also gives the government the option of replacing the rebel amendment with a better one that does the same thing … as I mentioned in the comments to the last post, the current legislation effectively requires the Boundary Commissions to report at least 18 months before a general election so there is proper time to implement the boundaries, for returning officers to make the necessary arrangements, parties to reorganise local associations and select candidates. Under the amendment the boundary commissions will have to report at most eighteen months before the 2020 election, which has the potential to cause chaos if not enough time is left. If you did want to delay the next boundary review to 2018, much better to have the clause say “before October 2018, but not before 2017” or something like that.
For all intents and purposes the review appears dead now (there are theoretically ways it could be got through, but with the SNP seemingly suggesting they’ll also vote against they all require quite a suspension of disbelief), but time will tell if Cameron keeps it on life support for reasons of optimism or party/coalition management.