John Moss is Head of Candidates at College Green Group, a campaigns and communications consultancy based in Westminster which works with prospecitve candidates and MPs.
The Boundary Commissioners’ Revised Recommendations landed in early November and are almost certain to form the basis of the seat boundaries for the next general election. Indeed, the Conservatives have now begun a programme to get all their candidates in place, on these new boundaries, by the end of summer 2023.
To what extent do the Conservatives gain from the Boundary Review?
Ignoring current polling, expert opinion suggests that the Conservatives benefit significantly from the Boundary Review.
Based on the 2019 general election vote, it has been estimated that they would have won ten more seats, 375 in total. Using this as a starting point, then adding in the 15 confirmed retirements, the by-election losses and the ‘pending peers’ announced in Boris Johnson’s resignation honours, (though this constitutional innovation has not yet been accepted by the authorities), in theory, there are 32 potential seats for prospective new Conservative MPs.
The Party’s procedure for sitting MPs with “incumbency rights”
All sitting Conservative MPs have now been told where they have ‘incumbency’ rights. In some cases this is in more than one seat. They were also asked to confirm whether they want to seek readoption and if they were eligible for more than one seat, their preference. A deadline for this was set as 5th December, although some have asked for and been given extra time.
Constituency association executive councils will soon begin the task of voting on whether to readopt MPs who have more than 66% of the electorate of a new seat coming from their old one. These ‘sole incumbents’ only have to pass this vote.
Next up, seats where more than one MP want to be the candidate will hold a meeting of all members living within the new seat’s boundary to choose which they want as their candidate.
These two phases are expected to be dealt with by the end of February, by which time the next seats up for grabs will already have been advertised. These are the seats which will be open to approved candidates to apply for, though potentially they will be up against MPs who haven’t secured seats in the first two phases.
Which other Conservative-held seats prospective candidates might apply for
There are 15 MPs who have publicly confirmed they will be stepping down at the next election. At College Green Group, we are a little surprised at how low this number is, though some MPs might delay making this public in order to keep their staff team together and allow them time to find new jobs.
41 MPs who were elected as Conservative MPs in 2017 stood down in 2019, though nine were independent at the time of the election, mostly Brexit rebels. Only twelve stood down in 2017, but that was a “snap” election barely two years on from the previous general election. 37 MPs stood down in 2015 and 35 in 2010. Given that the current electoral fortunes for the Conservatives look grim, we had expected more people to confirm their retirement, especially given that we hear MPs are being told they may not get any of the usual ‘goodies’ offered to retiring MPs if they leave it to the last minute.
There are also four further MPs who were elected as Conservatives who do not currently have the Conservative whip. (Matt Hancock is also in this position, but he has announced his retirement). They could be denied the opportunity to stand again. Finally, there are two unnamed MPs who have been arrested for serious offences, but who retain the whip, pending resolution of their cases.
The potential for selection contests between seatless MPs and new candidates
We believe that the fallout from these changes could mean a significant number of MPs may be contesting new seats against other MPs who are “seatless” – in other words, who have either not been readopted in a seat where they have sole incumbency rights, or who have lost out to another sitting MP in a seat where both have imcumbency rights.
This could have negative consequences for their future campaigns if any personal loyalties within constituencies are tested during these contests. On balance, we therefore think the reality on the ground is not as helpful for the Conservative Party as the raw numbers suggest.
The composition of seats whose Conservative MPs have announced that they are standing down
Of those seats where MPs are stepping down, Kingswood and Brigg & Goole are chopped up and shared amongst other seats, so that brings the total down. Of the others, Moray, Norwich North and Bishop Auckland look like certain losses based on current constituency polling. The other eleven are a mixture of likely Conservative holds and marginal seats.
These seats will be the next ones choosing their candidates after MPs looking to stand again are chosen. In these seats, effective campaigning with good candidates will be crucial in determining whether they are retained by the Conservatives or fall to Labour or the Lib-Dems. It is also highly likely that “anti-Conservative coalitions” will form, either locally and informally or in a more organised way. (An early example is South Devon Primary.) This is likely to cause more significant swings than is being picked up in current polling.
Seats that the Conservatives have lost since 2019 in by-elections
Since 2019, the Conservatives have lost four seats in by-elections, three of which were seen as true blue, safe, Conservative seats. Those three seats, Chesham & Amersham, North Shropshire and Tiverton and Honiton are affected differently by the boundary review. The fourth, Wakefield, was an unlikely win in 2019, though it had been edging closer to the Tories over recent elections. Following the resignation of Imran Ahmad Khan after his conviction, Labour took the seat in the ensuing by-election. It is now looking like a certain Labour hold.
Chesham and Amersham is a true blue area, with all councillors within the new boundaries being Conservative, bar one Lib-Dem and one Independent. The seat is not changing much in the review and the Conservatives selected a ‘Parliamentary Spokesman’ in May 2022, Gareth Williams. He looks likely to be confirmed as the official candidate for the seat.
North Shropshire has also selected a Parliamentary Spokesman, Dean Carroll. This also looks likely to be recovered by the Conservatives. The seat loses two wards but there are no new areas added. The Tories hold 18 of 21 council seats across the constituency and Labour is unlikely to step back and leave it to the Lib-Dems in a general election, like they did in the by-election.
Tiverton & Honiton is changing far more significantly. Almost half of the old seat is becoming a new Honiton seat and the remainder a new Tiverton and Minehead seat, which will span the county border between Devon and Somerset. Part of the seat comes from Ian Liddell-Grainger’s Bridgwater constituency and he can claim incumbency rights, because he is the only sitting MP with any part of this new seat coming from his current one.
The Tories only have 16 of the 39 councillors representing the wards which make up the seat. These are split between two Councils, and there’s the added complication of one being Conservative-led, but the other being Lib-Dem controlled – and in that council, Somerset West and Taunton, the Conservatives are a small minority. It therefore seems unlikely that Liddell-Grainger will seek selection here, given the new Bridgwater seat, where he can claim sole incumbency rights, is in a council area controlled by the Conservatives and the majority of wards in the new seat are Conservative held.
So with Gary Streeter stepping down in South West Devon, David Warburton without the Conservative whip and this new seat, plus one in Wiltshire and one in Gloucestershire, the South West Region is likely to be very much in the sights of those seeking to get elected in the coming General Election.
In the Anglia region, stretching from Hertfordshire up to Norfolk, there are notionally three additional Conservative seats, and with Chloe Smith, Matt Hancock, Sir Mike Penning and Sir Charles Walker stepping down, that might mean as many as seven possible berths for prospective new MPs.
Spanning the Suffolk/Norfolk border is the Waveney Valley seat, made up of parts of the former Waveney seat held by Peter Aldous, Norfolk South held by Richard Bacon, Bury St Edmunds, where Jo Churchill is the MP, and Suffolk Central and Ipswich North, represented by Dr Dan Poulter. It seems unlikely that Churchill or Poulter would seek to get selected here, though Bacon might. He has a larger portion of the new seat and it is slightly less marginal than his current seat. The new Lowestoft seat is wholly within the old Waveney seat, but if none of the other three MPs try to jump ship to the new seat, Aldous might have a clear run here. The Lowestoft seat would then become free, though it is decidedly marginal.
Further west in Cambridgeshire, a new seat is being created from parts of the existing Huntingdon seat together with wards from Cambridgeshire South and Cambridgeshire South East. This is potentially a three-way flight between Housing Minister, Lucy Frazer, Anthony Browne and Jonathan Djanogly. However, all might want to stay put, leaving this as a good seat for a new candidate.
Just further east in Bedfordshire, there are no new seats, but Nadine Dorries is another of the pending peers and her Mid-Bedfordshire seat looks like a real opportunity for a new candidate to fight a seat with a very good chance of success. The Conservative party is also in the process of selecting a candidate for Bedford, which is likely to be a target seat.
In Hertfordshire, Sir Charles Walker is stepping down and his Broxbourne seat, which will now include three wards from the existing Hertford & Stortford seat, will be a prime target for many candidates based in the South East. Sir Mike Penning is also relinquishing his Hemel Hempstead seat, but the changes around here are complicated. The new boundaries of Hemel Hempstead spread west and split Gagan Mohindra’s South West Hertfordshire seat in two. The southern portion remains as South West Hertfordshire, but the northern portion joins up with Bim Afolami’s Harpenden in a new Harpenden & Berkhamsted seat. All three seats are marginal, but one will become free for a new candidate.
Similarly across the South East region, which encircles London to the south and west, the review, on paper, delivers seven new Conservative seats. There is a definite new seat on the Isle of Wight, which will have two MPs rather than one, and across the region six further new seats will be created to reflect the growth in population. Add in the resignations of Adam
Afriye in Windsor and Crispin Blunt in Reigate & Banstead – that makes nine prospective new Conservative seats.
In Kent, a new seat is created west of Ashford, named Weald of Kent. Expect current Ashford MP Damian Green to go for this seat leaving an interesting marginal seat, made up of most of the town of Ashford, vacant for a new candidate.
Further west in Sussex, a new seat of East Grinstead & Uckfield has parts of four previous Conservative-held seats. All four look like probable Conservative holds, but next door Crawley is far less certain, so Henry Smith may well be looking to secure a new berth amongst this group of seats.
In Hampshire, the Hamble Valley seat is predicted to be a Conservative hold, but neighbouring MP Royston Smith in Southampton Itchin is looking a lot less secure. He doesn’t have incumbency rights in the new seat, but if the three MPs who do, decline to go for this new seat, he could still apply.
Moving north into Surrey, the Commissioners have confirmed that Jeremy Hunt’s South West Surrey seat will be divided between two new seats. Farnham & Bordon takes in parts of East Hampshire, but is mostly from Hunt’s old seat. The balance of the old South West Surrey wards go into a new Godalming & Ash seat, which takes in parts of Guildford, Meon Valley and Surrey Heath. It is possible that Guildford MP, Angela Richardson, would try for this seat, given her vulnerability to the Liberal Democrats. Either way, there’s a new seat in this area, which might be safe Conservative, or might be a tight marginal contest with the Lib-Dems.
In Berkshire, the growing population along the M4 corridor leads to a new seat east of Reading. Earley & Woodley will be made up of parts of Wokingham (held by John Redwood) and Maidenhead (Theresa May) but mostly of wards from the existing Reading East. There is an outside chance this seat could return a Conservative MP, but it will be a fight. The rest of Reading becomes a new, nailed on Labour seat with the old Reading West seat, currently held by another of the pending peers, Alok Sharma, growing further west and renamed, Mid Berkshire. This is not as safe as the name might imply, but will no doubt be a sought-after seat.
The new Buckingham & Bletchley seat takes in a chunk of Milton Keynes South alongside parts of the old Buckingham seat, vacated by former Speaker John Bercow in 2019. This is a slightly better prospect than the revised Milton Keynes South, so we expect Iain Stewart to go for this seat, with Greg Smith taking the new Mid Buckinghamshire seat. That leaves a tough fight for someone in Milton Keynes South.
The last Conservative prospect in the South East region is Bicester & Woodstock. This new seat is made up of parts of Banbury, Henley, Oxford West & Abingdon, and Witney. Banbury MP, Victoria Prentis might fancy a move here and has the largest share of the seat, with almost half the electors. It is unlikely Robert Courts or John Howell would fancy the move, so she could take this berth. That would leave her Banbury seat up for grabs.
There are two MPs set to retire in the West Midlands, Sajid Javid in Bromsgrove and Mark Pawsey in Rugby. However, the Conservatives lose one seat across the region in the review, so Bromsgrove, which looks like a Conservative hold, will no doubt be in the sights of displaced MPs. Pawsey’s seat looks much less enticing, with a projected Labour majority of almost 5,000.
In the North East the Conservatives look like losing two seats on the review alone, but will gain one in Yorkshire/Humberside. With Andrew Percy and Nigel Adams both stepping down – Adams is another pending peer – this region is also likely to be of interest to prospective candidates.
In the North West the new Mid-Cheshire seat will be of interest to displaced MPs from quite significant changes around this region, so this may not be one whichever gets advertised to the wider list of prospective candidates.
In the East Midlands, the notionally new seat of Melton & Syston is the remaining real opportunity for new candidates to bag a safe seat in England.
It is still unclear whether more MPs will decide not to stand again and that might throw up additional opportunities for potentially winnable seats. There will also be many opportunities to fight seats where the Conservatives may not be competitive. Candidates with a long-term perspective can gain a lot of kudos by taking on these seats and helping a target seat campaign.