An embattled Theresa May has postponed a Commons showdown on plans to slash the number of Parliamentary seats after Tory rebels looked set to defeat her.
As the Boundary Commission published its final proposals to cut Westminster’s constituencies from 650 to 600, it emerged that the Government has backed off moves to stage the key vote next month.
Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith revealed it could take months to draft the required Parliamentary order needed to enact the boundary changes. Number 10 also refused to commit to holding a vote before Christmas.
Labour swiftly said the PM was “running scared” of her backbenchers and should dump the plans because they were wrong in principle.
The sweeping changes, which stem from David Cameron’s pledge to cut the cost of politics, have met fierce resistance from a clutch of Conservatives who think the move anti-democratic and who fear their own seats will be scrapped or made too marginal.
Several backbench Brexiteers – including David Davis and Priti Patel – face the abolition of their seats, while others like Boris Johnson face defeat on the new boundaries.
Some Tory backbenchers argue that cutting the number of MPs without cutting the size of the government will weaken Parliament.
Labour has also accused May of seeking to use the review to stage another “power grab” to add an extra 20 seats to the Tories’ total at the next election, even before any ballots have been cast.
Downing Street and senior ministers have repeatedly insisted they were sticking to the plans, claiming it was fairer to have fewer constituencies of equal size to reflect population changes of recent years.
But the delay is sure to prompt fresh speculation that May will abandon the boundary proposals completely as she cannot get a majority for them in the Commons.
Shadow Constitutional Affairs Minister Cat Smith told HuffPost UK: “It’s clear these proposals are deeply unpopular with Tory MPs otherwise Theresa May wouldn’t be shelving plans for a vote in October.”
The Government’s retreat was smuggled out in an obscure committee hearing last week, when Constitutional Affairs minister Smith said that drafting the Parliamentary order needed for the boundary plans would be a “complex and lengthy” process.
“It will take months to prepare,” she said. Challenged by Labour MPs, she said: “I used the word ‘months’ and I deliberately did so. I intend to be realistic… that those instruments are complex and need to be prepared fully and correctly.”
The Prime Minister’s spokesman refused twice to commit to saying the vote would be held before Christmas, but stressed the plan was in the last Tory manifesto.
“We are committed to delivering more equal and updated boundaries so our Parliamentary system represents everyone equally,” he said.
“Without boundaries reform, constituencies would be based on data which is more than 20 years old, which would disregard significant changes in demographics, housebuilding and migration.”
No.10 later pointed out that the PM said in May she will “look at the consequences of the proposals” for the number of elected Members of Parliament and the size of the executive.
The spokesman said: “The cap on the number of paid Ministers and of Commons Ministers is fixed in primary legislation. We have frozen Ministerial pay since 2010, meaning a real terms’ cut in the cost of Ministers.
“The powers of scrutiny of the Commons have increased in recent years – with the election of Select Committee chairmen and backbench business committee debates.”
The final plans published on Monday are relatively unchanged from their last draft version. Jeremy Corbyn’s own seat loses some wards but benefits from the addition of parts of neighbouring Hackney North.
If the review was ever approved, he is expected to be the MP for the new seat of Finsbury Park and Stoke Newington.
Cabinet minister Esther McVey’s own seat of Tatton, previously George Osborne’s constituency, would be dismantled completely, with parts taken by surrounding seats.
Cat Smith added: “These final boundary recommendations are nothing but an undemocratic power grab by this Tory Government.
“With no plans to reduce the number of Ministers, the Government is weakening the role of Parliament and creating unprecedented levels of executive dominance at the expense of backbenchers, when Parliament is meant to be taking back control.
“We stand ready to work with all political parties to agree an accelerated timetable for a new review that benefits our democracy, not just the Conservative Party.”