As Britain goes to the polls, it looks almost certain that the general election will deliver the second hung parliament in as many elections. But what’s more, the signals are that the post-election negotiation process of 2010 will look like a walk in the park compared to what is to come.
Here we intend to de-mystify what scenarios we could see unfolding after all seats have declared tomorrow.
Current projections suggest that there will be barely a handful of seats separating the Conservatives and Labour. Yesterday, the Guardian forecasted that the Conservatives will win 274 seats to Labour’s 271, while Election Forecast predicted earlier this week that the Conservatives will win 281 seats to Labour’s 266. Most recent forecasts have tended to put the Conservatives as the likely largest party.
A Conservative-led government
If these polls prove right then David Cameron will attempt to form the first government, and it seems likely that he will attempt to repeat a Conservative-Lib Dem agreement, either through formal coalition or a looser agreement in the Commons. Yet forecasts suggest that Mr Cameron may struggle to demonstrate his ability to command a majority in the Commons and fulfil the statutory requirement to secure the House of Commons’ “confidence” to govern.
In the Guardian’s prediction, for example, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats together only have 301 seats – not enough for Mr Cameron to prove without question that he has the confidence of the House. Even in the event that he is able to count on the support of Ukip and the DUP as well, the four parties together would only have 313 seats. A majority of 323 is required for a government to survive a no confidence vote in the Commons: if Mr Cameron cannot command the votes of at least 323 MPs then he cannot demonstrate that the House has confidence in him.
The conundrum for the Conservative Party is therefore clear. If the current projections are accurate, the arithmetic of parliament looks set against them. The Conservatives will need to better its performance and increase its number of seats to upwards of 290 to be able to fully command the confidence of the Commons. This is significant, because the Cabinet Manual makes it clear that the government is expected to resign “if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command [the confidence of the House of Commons] and there is a clear alternative.”
The anti-Tory bloc
If current projections are borne out, Ed Miliband may well have the best opportunity to provide that clear alternative. The Labour Party looks set to be joined in Westminster by a significant cohort of SNP MPs whose leader has made preventing the formation of a Conservative-led government her party’s number one priority. It can therefore be reliably assumed that the SNP, though both they and Labour have ruled out a formal coalition, would support a Labour government in the event of a confidence vote. In a number of recent projections, Labour and the SNP together have had enough or nearly enough seats to demonstrate that a Labour government would have the confidence of the house as a result of the votes of the SNP.
When you also consider the presence of the Lib Dems, who could potentially be brought onside, and various left-leaning minority parties such as the Greens and the SDLP, it seems that Mr Miliband may enjoy more options than Mr Cameron to try to command the confidence of the Commons. Mr Miliband may therefore be able to demand the resignation of the government if he can demonstrate the confidence that the government cannot.
Hung parliaments and the Fixed Term Parliament Act
Whatever the outcome of the election, it looks as if the arguments that follow will be intense and will hinge upon the implications of a single sentence in the Cabinet Manual. For as well as making it clear that the government is expected to resign if it cannot command the confidence of the house, it also says that in a hung parliament, an incumbent government is entitled to wait to see if it can command that confidence.
Even if Mr Cameron does not look likely to be able to command the confidence of the Commons, he may use this apparent entitlement of incumbency to attempt a Conservative Queen’s Speech on May 27, daring the more populous anti-Tory bloc to bring down his government. If Labour is second-placed in number of seats, this will be coupled with vociferous protestations about the supposed illegitimacy of Labour forming a government from second place, the Conservatives attempting to make it politically difficult to vote them down.
However, if Labour becomes the largest party by number of seats then the position looks rather simpler. Unless his party secures the greatest share of the overall vote, it would be politically difficult for Mr Cameron to stay on and try to form a government. Mr Miliband would be free to form a government, which in all probability would be a Labour minority government working with various parties in the house on an issue-by-issue basis. The Fixed Term Parliament Act ensures that the Queen’s Speech and Budgets are not confidence issues, hence the only option available to opposition parties would be the ‘nuclear’ option, the politically difficult no confidence vote.
Tomorrow morning it will look much clearer who will form the next government. But it may not be until early June, when the Commons will vote on the Queen’s Speech, that we will know whether the government will survive its birth. And further, there can be no guarantee that a minority government would survive its term. The life of a minority government is precarious, and depends on the government being able to work effectively across party lines to bring through legislation. If a government is formed but is unable to function effectively, the Commons may well lose faith in its ability to govern, possibly leading to a vote of no confidence which, if successful, will trigger a second election. This is an expensive and disruptive scenario that no one wants, but could well become a reality within a year. The longer an ineffective minority government drags itself along, the more a no confidence vote looks like the right course of action.