Now that the Liberal Democrats have entered negotiations with the Conservatives, a possible deal may be reached by combining the Lib Dem ambition for electoral reform with the aim of reducing the size of the House of Commons they both share. Incidentally this may not be at all to unionists’ tastes as I hear the necessary boundary review could give another seat to nationalists. So watch this space in the longer term.
The two parties are far apart on electoral reform but under pressure, maybe not impossibly so, in the opinion of the Cosntitution Unit.
To persuade the Tories the Lib Dems might propose:
- A quick (6 month) commission to investigate why First past the post operates so unfairly
- A referendum in which Lib Dems and the Tories are free to campaign on opposite sides
- Hardball negotiation: no electoral reform, no deal.
The Lib Dems want STV as in NI , and to reduce the House of Commons to 500 MPs. The Conservatives also want to reduce the size of the Commons, to 585, but to retain First past the Post. To reduce the size of the House of Commons requires a wholesale boundary review of all constituency boundaries. That is difficult to achieve in one Parliament; but not impossible, if the boundary review process is drastically streamlined. The difficulty of adding electoral reform is the risk of delaying the whole process beyond this Parliament.
The Lib Dems want a fully elected second chamber, while the Conservatives want to ‘build a consensus’ for a mainly elected second chamber. The Lib Dems will want a clear timetable, with a plan for legislation in this Parliament leading to the first elections in 2014 or 2015. The Tories may offer Lords reform in place of electoral reform for the Commons. There is some logic in that: the electoral system for one House needs to be resolved before deciding on the other.
Fixed term Parliaments
The Lib Dems support fixed term parliaments. Cameron has mentioned the possibility in the past, and might be persuaded. Legislation could be introduced in the first or second session, and would set the date of the next general election, and elections after that.
EU (Referendums) and Sovereignty Bill
The Conservatives are committed to legislate to require compulsory referendums on future EU Treaties, and to restate the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament. Both bills are problematic, in terms of their legal effect, and signals they would send to Europe. The Conservative leadership might be relieved if the Lib Dems insisted they were dropped; their backbenchers will not.
British bill of rights
Up until the election the Lib Dems supported a British bill of rights, as part of a written constitution. Faced by the Conservative threat to repeal the Human Rights Act, they have now pledged to protect it. They might be willing to discuss what a British bill of rights would add to the HRA, on the clear understanding that it would have to be ECHR plus.
The Lib Dems will want to revive Hayden Phillips’ 2007 review into party funding, which came close to reaching agreement. Both parties could agree a cap of £50k on donations, which would also apply to trade union contributions. The Conservatives will not be happy with any increase in state funding.
Right of recall
Both parties are agreed on a power to recall MPs found guilty of serious wrongdoing.
Brown would offer more than Cameron but with what result? Lab and LD together plus, 1 Green, 3 SDLP, Naomi and Sylvia are unlikely to add up to more votes that the Tories alone. T o put a Lab led rainbow coaltion over the top,the SNP would have to eat their words – not impossible, but looking thin.
Certainly it looks tight.
The Clegg move is probably what will drive the agenda for the next couple of days. A deal with the DUP and/or the Nats over shielding Scotland, Wales and NI from future spending cuts is no more attractive to Cameron than electoral reform and maybe less so in practice. It would produce fewer supporting votes in the Commons. If any deal with the devolved areas was struck to the disadvantage of the English regions he would face uproar from the English of all parties at a time when the UK may become embroiled in another international financial crisis.
However the SNP leader Alex Salmond has just said he’s asking for civil service backup to take part in negotiations with both the Conservatives and Labour.
For their own sake, it would be inadvisable for the DUP to try to overbid with either major party now, for fear of turning future block grants into an England v the Rest battle ground – battles which the devolved areas would surely lose.
We may know more about the Brown position as he’ll speak when ( nearly) all the results are in at around 2.30 pm.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London