By Peter Hoskin
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The first featured Michael Gove, and can be watched in its entirety here. The Education Secretary repeated the main points from his Today Programme interview this morning: that he will not intervene in the GCSE marking row as it is a matter for the exams regulator Ofqual, and that he and the government will soon announce their GCSE reform plans, presumably designed to make the exams more rigorous.
The second came after Nick Clegg’s statement about Lords reform, in which the Deputy Prime Minister confirmed — as if confirmation were needed — that the Coalition’s plans for the second chamber are no more. Some Tory MPs cheered as Mr Clegg grumbled through his lines, seemingly delighted at his discomfort. “'I can confirm that the Government has today withdrawn that Bill,” he said, “about which I am not as happy as members behind me are.”
But there was anger, as well as merriment, from the Tory benches — for, after his original statement, Mr Clegg reaffirmed his intention to vote down the boundary changes, claiming once again that they were wrapped up in the same policy package as Lords reform. “Nothing will change my mind,” he added for emphasis, even though there remains speculation that something eventually might.
It was around this point that Eleanor Laing cited Mr Clegg’s previous words on the matter:
“The Deputy Prime Minister has confirmed that on 6 August, he said that, the House of Lords Reform Bill having been withdrawn, his party would no longer support the boundaries legislation. Does he recall that on 19 April, in answer to my questions, he told the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform that there was ‘no link’ between the two issues? Does he accept that he cannot have been telling the truth on both occasions?”
Soon after, Jacob Rees Mogg asked a question that began in tongue-in-cheek but ended with a rasp:
“May I commend the Deputy Prime Minister on his remarkable statesmanship with regard to the boundary changes? He will be pleased to know that the commission was proposing a North East Somerset that would have been a safe Lib Dem seat, so I am in with a sporting chance of being back after the next election. However, now that he has said that Lib Dem Ministers will vote against Government policy, I wonder what his definition of collective responsibility is within a coalition Government.”
And, before them both, Bernard Jenkin had implied that Mr Clegg’s actions were a “disgrace”:
“My right hon. Friend should comfort himself: he gave it his best shot, with all his sincerity, and we respect him for that. May I draw his attention to the fact that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 remains in force? Therefore, the boundary commissions remain under a duty to make proposals on a House of 600 Members. Does he have the power to instruct them to stop? No, he does not. Is he therefore not simply going to obstruct a constitutional process for his own party political advantage, which is a disgrace?”
What was particularly striking, apart from these Tory attacks, was the ferocity of the Deputy Prime Minister’s attacks against Labour. At one point he described them as “miserable little party point-scoring politicians,” which will do nothing to invalidate the idea that he could never take his party into Coalition with Miliband & Co. (or, more accurately perhaps, his party could never take him into Coalition with Miliband & Co.).
So, first day back for Nick Clegg, and he already seems to be antagonising MPs on all sides. He’s really only safe in the Cabinet Office now.
By Tim Montgomerie
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We learnt yesterday that Labour plans to select one hundred candidates in target seats in the next year. The party wants candidates in place and building profile as quickly as possible. My understanding is that Labour will choose candidates to fight seats for the existing system of constituency boundaries. One source told me that if the new boundaries are eventually passed then they will have a problem but not one that can't be corrected by putting half-a-dozen or more of those candidates in the House of Lords. We are gambling, they admitted, but there are huge benefits in early selection and we don't want to forfeit those benefits.
In contrast the Tory plan is to start selecting candidates on the new boundaries. A final decision won't be taken until the autumn when it's clearer whether the boundary review will be passed. After last week's Lords vote the Tory leadership felt defeated but it hasn't quite given up on trying to save the plan to introduce fair-sized seats and cut the total number of MPs to 600. Oliver Letwin is currently holding a long series of bilateral meetings with a variety of the 91 Tory rebels to see what kind of compromise on Lords reform that they might be willing to support. The talks are not said to be encouraging for Mr Letwin and there is now talk that the Liberal Democrats might be offered party funding reform as an alternative sweetener for supporting boundary changes. One leading aide to the Party Chairman told me yesterday that the passage of the new boundaries was the most important single legislative change for the Conservative Party's chances of winning the next election. CCHQ is pleased at the outcome of the boundary review and it has confirmed the general view that the party needs a 10.5% lead to win an outright majority on existing boundaries but a much more modest 7.6% on the new boundaries.
What Nick Clegg will not be able to do, I learnt yesterday, is avoid a Commons vote on the issue. In 1969 Jim Callaghan learnt that the boundary review of that period had not worked out well for Labour but he was compelled to bring the review to the Commons and to urge Labour MPs to defeat it. Nick Clegg may have to do the same. He may have to come to the Commons and disown a boundary review process that he backed only eighteen months ago. Some Tory MPs who risk losing their own seats may, of course, join him in that self-serving position.
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