In the Commons last week something exceptional happened. Virtually en bloc Conservatives and Lib Dems, including their respective Ministers, trooped through opposing lobbies to vote against one another. The issue was, on the face of it, rather dry – a motion to overturn a House of Lord's amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. An amendment that pushes the implementation of proposed parliamentary boundary changes out to 2018.
But whilst the headlines focused on the possibility that this blue verses yellow spat might herald the end of the coalition – it won't – the real news was that what we witnessed this week was nothing less than an assault on our democracy. As a result of the Lib Dems breaking ranks, a Bill that would have broadly equalised the number of electors within each parliamentary constituency in time for the next general election now lies in tatters.
The rationale for the proposed boundary changes is compelling. Under the current arrangements we have the anomaly of seats with wildly differing electorates. This typically occurs through the migration of voters between different constituencies over time – most often out of urban centres and into the suburbs and countryside – something that overall disadvantages the Conservatives for whom large majorities become stacked up in rural seats with Labour doing better in urban constituencies with fewer voters.
This naturally adds to the attraction of boundary changes for the Tories but the merits of these are far more universal than narrow political advantage suggests – they are about the health of our democracy or "fair votes" as our Lib Dem friends might say. How can it be right that in Aberconwy there are just 45,000 electors whilst in the Isle of Wight there are 111,000? When it comes to sending an MP to Westminster why should a vote cast in one place be worth over twice as much as one cast in another?
The Lib Dems themselves accept that boundary changes are right in principle – indeed until recently I sat in the Commons intently listening to Nick Clegg and his colleagues arguing for the very proposals they have now voted down. So why the flip-flop? The reason is the failure of the Conservative Party to deliver House of Lords Reform in the face of a mutiny on the part of its own backbenchers. A reform that would have given the Lib Dems the balance of power in a newly elected upper chamber for a long time to come.
Many Lib Dems argue that the failure to deliver this reform breaches the coalition agreement and that the delivery of boundary changes and Lords reform are linked. This is disingenuous.
Firstly, because the coalition agreement did not link the two issues. In fact the boundary changes were linked to the delivery of a referendum on changing our parliamentary electoral system to the Alternative Vote – something highly desirable to the Lib Dems and far less so to the Conservatives and Labour. The Lib Dems may not have liked the outcome of the AV referendum when it was held but it represented a commitment that was fully delivered upon.
Secondly, whilst Lords reform did not get through the Commons, the coalition agreement did not, in fact, require that it need do so. What the agreement actually stated – no doubt prefiguring the difficulties that lay ahead – was "we will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation." And this was duly delivered along with an aggressive attempt by the Conservative leadership to press Tory backbenchers into voting for its proposals.
I realise that all this detail is hardly the hottest gossip down at the Dog and Duck, but it does matter if you believe that democracy matters, if you believe that agreements are best not broken and if you believe that the next government should have the greatest possible democratic legitimacy.
By Mel Stride, Conservative MP for Central Devon.