24 days ago, I wrote that We’re heading for a Labour minority government backed by the SNP.
Since then, there have been thousands more people polled, millions more pounds spent on campaigning and millions more words written/said about the election. So, I now have a ++BREAKING NEWS++ update!
We’re still heading for a Labour minority government backed by the SNP.
The Guardian’s Poll Projection (other projections are available and, more or less, agree), which sucks in and uses all nationwide and constituency polling, shows that, based on current polls, the only feasible bloc of parties which would form a majority in the House of Commons is Labour + SNP. They may be joined perhaps by Plaid and Green members, making up around 330 MPs, reasonably comfortably exceeding the 323 needed to command the Commons, when you take into account the neutrality of the Speaker and the absence of Sinn Fein MPs.
The quite important thing, from the point of view of what happens after May 7th (as we shall see in a moment), is whether Labour have more MPs than the Conservative party. At the moment it is nib and tuck at around 270, dependent on which projection you use.
So all this has me curious as to what exactly happens after the last constituency result (which the Press Association currently says will be St Ives at 13:00 on May 8th, but of course there may be messy recounts and even contested results – like Winchester in 1997).
I’m a sad anorak, and the choreography of the phone calls and limousine itineries fascinates me.
The simplest scenario is that David Cameron, upon hearing that Andrew George has held St Ives, will phone Buck House and humbly ask if he may visit, get into a limousine and go and tell Our Liz that the game is up for him. Dear Liz thanks him charmingly and asks her man to call Ed Miliband. Ed arrives, wreathed in smiles, and is asked to form a government, which he does. By an astonishing feat of telepathy previously unknown to human kind, Ed manages to fashion a Queen’s Speech which the SNP support and we’re on the road for five years of Labour minority government backed by the SNP. Simples.
The opposite end of the simplicity scale is quite messy with endless possible permutations. It is possible that the Conservatives are the largest party, in terms of seats, on May 8th. They may even have received the most votes of any party. There could be one or two contested election results separating the two largest parties in terms of seats. And Labour would have just received a mind-blowing, shattering defeat when a whole country, Scotland, rejected them. David Cameron would have strong arguments for staying on as Prime Minister to piece together a Queen’s Speech that might command the support of the House of Commons. (The Queen’s Speech has to be delivered on May 27th, so there is fair amount of room for manoeuvre in the schedule.) Even if such a speech was opposed by the Commons, it is conceivable that he might survive a subsequent vote of confidence. That is highly unlikely, but technically possible. And even after being defeated in a vote of confidence, Cameron could or would arguably remain in 10 Downing Street while the (up to) 14 day period elapses for someone else (Ed Miliband?) to form a government which passes a Commons confidence vote (see the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011).
I would note that in 2010 there was a considerable necessity to sort out a government before the markets opened on the Monday morning after the election. I doubt whether there would be such urgency to do so this time. That takes some pressure off the timing of the government-making process.
Cameron would certainly have a strong argument to stay on as a caretaker Prime Minister while Ed Miliband tries to guess what Nicola Sturgeon wants in a Queen’s Speech. I say “guess” because it is a bit of a mystery as to what communication, if any, Labour and the SNP have had or are planning to have if the polls turn out to be right. They say they won’t make a deal. Does that mean they won’t talk on the phone or round a table or through inter-mediaries? Or does Ed have to use telepathy or a Ouija board to guess what Nicola wants? Or will they communicate via semaphore – a bit like that Monty Python “Wuthering Heights” sketch with Nicola Sturgeon stood at the top of Edinburgh Castle and Ed Miliband on the roof of Downing Street?
The main document, I presume, which will guide politicians after the election, is the Cabinet Manual, which says:
Where an election does not result in an overall majority for a single party, the incumbent government remains in office unless and until the Prime Minister tenders his or her resignation and the Government’s resignation to the Sovereign. An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.
You can hardly call a Labour minority government, backed by the SNP, a “clear alternative” when they don’t appear to have had any discussions and they are sworn enemies.
The manual then goes on to outline procedures for forming a government in such circumstances.
It is interesting that (at least) two novel things happened after the 2010 election which may or may not become conventions as time goes on. One was Gordon Brown’s idea that a Prime Minister should not leave office and Downing Street at night. Come to think, I doubt whether that has ever happened before. The other was Nick Clegg’s declaration that:
whichever party gets the most votes and the most seats has the first right to seek to govern, either on its own or by reaching out to other parties
– Whether that one will gain any traction as years go by, will be interesting to see. It is not strictly reflected in the constitutional precedents I have read.
It is also worth re-reading, if you haven’t recently, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. I’d also point you to these useful resources:
- Tony Greaves’ trio of post-election scenario articles for Liberal Democrat Voice: What happens if…? ,Can’t poll, won’t poll and Haggling over more than just the haggis
- BBC – What if no-one wins the election?
- Independent – General Election 2015 – Britain could be without an effective government for six weeks
- Our Kingdom blog – May 2015: Who forms the UK government in the event of a hung parliament?
- London School of Economics – Why the UK needs improved caretaker conventions before the May 2015 general election
By the way, I should add, as pointed out by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian, that all the above will be conducted against the background of extremely noisy campaigns from both sides to attempt to derail the other in their quest for power. Rather like George W Bush’s very effective media campaign to seize power amongst hanging Floridian chads in 2000, we can expect a very loud campaign from both sides and the media, accompanying the constitutional niceties. Michael Gove and the Telegraph will be in mega-screech mode.
I would add that I painfully recognise that I am an amateur in this field so I genuinely welcome correction and enlightenment from the Liberal Democrat Voice Comments brains trust.
Whatever happens, it seems that the two most powerful people in the country, after May 7th, will be two women, specifically these two: