The Conservatives made an embarrassing retreat today when they put plans to combat electoral fraud on hold in an attempt to salvage a review of parliamentary boundaries that could give them an extra 20 seats at the 2015 general election.
The Electoral Registration and Administration Bill was delayed indefinitely after Liberal Democrats joined forces with Labour in the House of Lords and threatened to pass an amendment delaying the boundary review until 2018.
Nick Clegg announced in July that his party would block the new constituency map in retaliation for David Cameron’s decision to drop plans for a mainly elected second chamber in the face of a Tory backbench rebellion. The Tories want to keep the review alive until October next year, when Parliament is due to vote on it, in the hope that it could still take effect at the 2015 election. They hoped to persuade the Lib Dems to change their mind or to win the support of minority parties such as the Ulster Unionists and Scottish and Welsh nationalists.
This approach was wrecked when Labour tabled an amendment to the Bill killing off the boundaries’ shake-up – and a reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600—until 2018. The Independent understands the issue was discussed by Labour and Lib Dem peers and in private conversations between Mr Clegg and Ed Miliband.
Lord Strathclyde, the Tory Leader of the Lords, is said to have been in a “blind panic” when he learned of the scale of collusion between Lib Dems and Labour last week.
Mr Cameron was described as “furious and seriously angry” when he learned about the covert efforts by his Coalition partners to scupper the Boundary Commission’s work, meaning the 2015 election would definitely be fought on the current constituencies. Mr Clegg was called by the Prime Minister to explain the ambush, and observers say a “heated and frank exchange” took place between them. One source described the incident as “Mr Cameron giving a damn good bollocking to the Deputy PM.”
Mr Cameron ordered Lord Strathclyde to salvage what he could and “pull the vote” on the amendment if necessary. Today Lord Strathclyde told peers the Bill would not go ahead at all until “senior members of government” agreed on its future.
An unintended consequence is to delay the Bill’s proposal to switch from the present system under which voters are registered on a household basis to one where people must register individually. One aim was to stop fraud at the ballot box— for example by the use of postal votes. In 2005, a judge condemned the Government for complacency about fraud which would disgrace a “banana republic” when he found six Labour councillors guilty of “massive, systematic and organised” postal voting fraud in Birmingham City Council elections.
However, government sources tonight said that individual voter registration was not dead and insisted the Bill would be brought back. A Liberal Democrat spokesman said: “The decision to delay the Bill in the House of Lords was one taken by the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats are clear where we stand. We will vote for the amendment [on boundary changes] whenever it comes before the House. The amendment tabled is in line with what we have previously said on the boundary review – that it should be put off until the next Parliament and that we should not spend further money on a review we have publicly said that we would not support. That is why we will be voting for the amendment whenever it comes before the House.”
The Lib Dems insist there is no point in pressing on with the boundary review when it is certain to be delayed until after the next election in the Commons vote next October. It has already cost £5.8m and another £3.8m is due to be spent on it.
Baroness Royall, Labour Opposition leader in the Lords, accused the Tories of trying to “subvert democracy.” She said: “ The Government would be better advised putting in both the effort and the money into improving the electoral register, and making sure that as many citizens as possible are able and do take part in our country’s democracy, than gerrymandering the voting system.”