The Conservative Party manifesto published yesterday contained the promise:
As part of our drive for efficiency across Whitehall and Westminster, we will cut the number of MPs by 20 per cent.
This may or may not be a good idea – Britain does have more MPs per elector than many comparable countries, and there is no prima facie reason why 650-ish is necessarily better than 550-ish. Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie wrote a thoughtful piece about how it might be done last autumn. But…
Mr Howard said in an interview that “you have got to have a big bang” and that the Conservatives’ ambition was to achieve this in a single parliament.
Here we get into all sorts of trouble.
This pledge would require primary legislation, as the basis for the existing numbers is specified in several laws. The Boundary Commission will need to be instructed to work to the new rules, and its work vastly accelerated. The current review started in 2000, is still going on, and won’t be ready until the election after this one. To make the Commission work faster will need more money, and probably a change in the existing procedure that allows for local public inquiries to amend the details. It would be expensive and nearly impossible to get through in time; it would probably be a net increase in public spending over the next 5-8 years. And MPs tend to become very precious and prickly about the boundaries of their fiefdoms. And the last thing this large new corps of Tory MPs will want to do is vote themselves out of jobs. Mr Tyrie’s excellent paper proposed phasing in the reduction, for good reasons.
Is one being unduly cynical in thinking that Mr Howard’s ‘big bang’ version is merely a populist slogan the party would be horrified to have to implement should it gain power?