Another hung parliament in May? Some myths and a remedy

The poll figures currently suggest that the general election in May will produce another hung parliament, with neither major party likely to win an overall majority of the seats.  The commentariat continues to write and speak as if this must mean another coalition government, right?  No, wrong.  Or at any rate that the party with the most seats has the right to have the first shot at forming a government, OK?  No, wrong again.  Well, it’s bound to mean that if the LibDems hold the balance of power again (i.e. if they win enough seats to put either Labour or the Conservatives over the top), they will try to negotiate the terms on which they would join either in a coalition, starting with whichever of them has won more seats?  Not necessarily — not even probably.   OK: but it might not matter that much: the Tories are already trying to raise even more money from their hedge fund manager friends to enable them to fight a second election later in 2015, which Cameron would be entitled to call if he emerges as prime minister in May, wouldn’t he?  Again, not necessarily.

There was a significant but almost wholly unnoticed constitutional amendment sneaked onto the books shortly before the 2010 election, mainly by the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir (now Lord) Gus O’Donnell.  Just one month before that election, I wrote a blog post in which I described, with links to the sources, a constitutional development with major implications in the event of a hung parliament in the following month:

There is a fear that such uncertainty [caused by the failure of either party to win an overall majority], if it lasts more than a very few days, will cause a run on sterling, turmoil in the bond markets and a possible need to raise interest rates, which would slow down and perhaps reverse Britain’s economic recovery.  To avert this potentially damaging fall-out from a hung parliament, the Cabinet Secretary, encouraged by the prime minister (and possibly with the agreement of the other party leaders), has written a new “rule book” — although No. 10 Downing Street has demurred at this description, asserting that it’s no more than a codification of existing and hitherto unwritten constitutional practice. The Cabinet Secretary’s code, apparently taking the form of a new chapter for the Civil Service Manual, provides, among other things, that if a hung parliament results from an election, the incumbent prime minister, regardless of the number of votes or seats his party has won, should not and must not resign as prime minister until it’s clear that there is a specific alternative MP likely to be able to form a government that will win the support of a majority of members of the House of Commons, expressed in majority support for that government’s  programme, as defined in the Queen’s Speech.  This formulation is designed to protect two fundamental constitutional principles:  the nation’s government must be able to be carried on without a significant hiatus; and the monarch must not be placed in a position of being forced to make a decision (such as having to choose whom to invite to try to form a government when there is no consensus on whom she or he should choose) that would entail, or seem to entail, political partisanship as between the parties, thus potentially damaging confidence in the monarchy’s position above party politics.

This (probably new) rule has important implications.  Newspaper editorials claiming that Brown will be morally and politically obliged to resign immediately as prime minister if Labour comes second or third in terms of votes cast, have got it wrong.  Brown and the Labour government would be obliged to continue in office for as long as there was any uncertainty about how the LibDems would vote on a Labour or Conservative government’s Queen’s Speech or on a vote of confidence in either government.

What’s more, the dilemma facing Nick Clegg will not be which of Labour or the Conservatives to ‘support’ in a hung parliament, but whether deliberately to bring down the existing Labour government in the vote on the Queen’s Speech or in a vote of confidence in the government.

As we all now know, my prediction turned out to be wrong on at least two counts:  Gordon Brown, lambasted by the media for his failure to resign the day after the election as soon as it became clear that the Tories had won more seats than Labour, resisted pressure from the LibDems and the Tories to hang on as prime minister until the terms of a Tory-LibDem coalition under Cameron had been agreed, got fed up with being vilified for “clinging to office”, drove to the Palace, and resigned anyway, taking the rest of his administration with him (not physically, of course);  and it became clear that whatever the state of the parties’ negotiations in the effort to glue together a coalition commanding a Commons majority, there could be no question of the LibDems being willing to serve in or even support a government under Gordon Brown as prime minister, so low was his standing in the country at the time.  His resignation was thus inevitable, whatever the new O’Donnell rules might say about the incumbent prime minister having a duty to remain in office until a clear successor with majority support in parliament had emerged.

The situation next May will however be different.  The biggest difference is that in 2010 the incumbent prime minister was Labour, whereas in May 2015 the Tory leader will have the huge advantage of incumbency — an advantage which Gordon Brown was unable to exploit because of his unpopularity.  Regardless of which party wins the most seats in a hung parliament, and even if Labour with support from the LibDems, SNP, Greens and some leftish nationalist MPs win enough seats to constitute a majority, David Cameron will still be entitled to remain in office, even until the new parliament meets.  At that point Cameron would be entitled to present a programme for government in the Queen’s Speech and seek approval for it in the House of Commons (which would in effect constitute a vote of confidence in his government).  If the Tories plus UKIP and some LibDems (if any) plus the right-of-centre nationalists managed to muster a majority in favour of the Queen’s (i.e. Cameron’s) Speech, Cameron could constitutionally continue as prime minister: the question of his resignation would not arise, and the Queen would have no power to demand it, even if she (and her advisers) thought that Miliband had a better chance of forming a government likely to command a more durable majority’s support in the House.
This scenario is by no means far-fetched:  Cameron, ever the opportunist unhampered by principles or political philosophy, is quite capable of putting together a programme in the Queen’s Speech so alluring, so full of populist goodies, that it would be difficult for any reasonable centrist party to vote it down.  In that case Cameron would almost certainly reject any idea of another coalition, heading a minority government, possibly with an informal “confidence and supply” understanding with UKIP and the other right-of-centre parties under which he would need to try to assemble a majority for each individual measure but would resign as prime minister only if defeated in a vote of confidence or on an issue involving the vote of funds to the government.
Even if events turned out in this way, or something like it, the time might well come when Cameron might calculate that if there were to be another election within a few months, the Tories would stand a good chance of winning it, this time with an overall majority.  He would then be tempted to resign and hope to win an ensuing general election outright (the dubiously constitutional Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011 could easily be circumvented or if necessary repealed).  Hence the reported decision of the Tories to start now collecting money to fight a possible second election in 2015.  But this depends on a questionable assumption.  David Cameron could resign and — if asked, but only if asked — advise the Queen to dissolve parliament,  followed by a fresh election; but this is one of the few occasions when the Queen is not bound to accept her prime minister’s advice.  She might well reject it if, for example, soundings by her advisers suggested that Ed Miliband would have enough backing from other parties to form a government with majority support in the House of Commons — and if she thought that the expense of another election so soon after the last would not be justified, especially in view of the risk that the outcome would be similar to that in May.  In such circumstances even a prime minister in office can’t be sure that his resignation would necessarily precipitate another general election.
All this is of course pure speculation.  It could well be falsified by any number of unpredictable factors, including the party arithmetic of the May election results and the extent of Cameron’s willingness to tough it out and hang on in No. 10 Downing Street until parliament meets even if Labour has won more seats than the Tories and would be generally regarded as having ‘won’ it.  Or indeed Labour might win an overall majority, in which case Cameron would automatically resign and Miliband would accept the Queen’s commission to form a government.  An overall Tory majority would similarly make speculation about the implications of a hung parliament redundant.
However, at the time of writing, the opinion polls seem to point to a hung parliament with Labour as the biggest party:  and with less than five months left before the election, Labour clearly ought to be making contingency plans for that outcome.
So what could the Labour party do now to minimise the danger of Cameron winning fewer seats but contriving to continue as prime minister until he can stitch together a majority in support of a Tory programme in the Queen’s Speech? The first priority must be to begin now to put together an agreement with the LibDems, the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru on the essential points of a minority (or indeed majority) Labour government programme for which they would all be prepared to pledge support, whatever the arithmetic of the new parliament.  All this needs to be done urgently and above all publicly, so that the electorate knows what it will be voting for.   It should not be difficult to find enough common ground for a programme manifestly more fair and humane than anything currently on offer from the Tories, while still being economically and fiscally responsible.  For almost all concerned apart from UKIP the prize — an end to the Tory project of destruction of the welfare state and Britain’s departure from the EU — should be too great to turn down.  Such a widely supported progressive Labour programme, publicly endorsed in advance by the majority of the parties likely to win seats at the election, would maximise the chances of a clear overall majority in the new parliament — and offer the best hope of preventing the Tories plus UKIP being able to assemble a counter-majority, with some support from the dithering centre.  It will go against the grain and instincts of many good Labour people to begin now to look publicly for common ground with either the LibDems or the SNP, both of whom have so recently been sworn enemies of Labour.  But if we are to have any hope at all of a Labour government next May, we need to swallow our pride and our prejudices and seek support for a progressive alternative to Cameron and Osborne wherever we can find it.
To be absolutely clear, I am emphatically not advocating a Labour-led government coalition with the LibDems or anyone else.  If the new parliament comprises a medley of small parties, several of which would need to support any government measure in a kaleidoscope of different combinations for it to secure parliamentary approval, a laboriously negotiated coalition agreement between four or five different parties would be unachievable, as well as unmanageable and therefore undesirable.  Failing an overall Labour majority (clearly the best outcome of all), the aim should be a minority Labour government with enough broad support from the other progressive parties to ensure parliamentary approval for the key elements of the Labour election manifesto to justify an informal confidence and supply understanding. For once Tina has proved her case. There Is No Alternative.  But time is already dangerously short.  To quote another former and very different Conservative prime minister, Action this day!

10 Responses

  1. Robert says:

    If I was in Scotland I’d be in the SNP in England god I cannot see Labour or the Tories having to many great ideas.

    So for me I can only hope whom, ever gets in the country heals it self fast, because whom ever wins it will be down to how the country can recover besides who wins.

    Miliband looks to be the weakest leader I’ve seen and Cameron well he’s New Tory trying to be the new Blair within the Tory party.

    We are doomed to be honest, lets pray none of them will get a new book sent to them Mein Kampf it might give them to many idea’s.

    But to be honest I think your wrong I think the Tories will win the next election it may not be by to many they will get a majority because I think the public will have an issue with the Miliband and decide to allow the Tories as they have done in the past one more term.

    But when I look around labour to see whom will be the next leader it scares the hell out of me, Progress will take the labour party on a ride to the right

  2. Geoff Culver says:

    An interesting article. One possible wrinkle is if Ed Miliband wins more seats than Cameron but is well behind in the actual percentage share of the vote. Legally this does not matter, but it will enhance the moral justification for Cameron hanging onto office and undermine the authority of a future minority Labour administration.

  3. Timothy Weakley says:

    Geoff Culver remarked: “..if Ed Miliband wins more seats than Cameron but is well behind in the actual percentage share of the vote ..”. This would be a reversal of what used to be the situation, when Labour was returned in Ebbw Vale and Rhondda and one or two Glasgow constituencies with a far bigger majority than Conservative candidates ever received in, say, Esher, Guildford’ or Bournemouth. Of course, now the SNP is likely to take a sizeable part of the Labour vote in Scotland, so it may be that Labour will receive a smaller fraction of the vote than the Conservatives in the UK as a whole, AND fewer seats. Groan.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Tim. Groan, indeed. But it’s well established that because of movements of population, de-industrialisation and somewhat out-of-date constituency boundaries, Labour now enjoys a built-in advantage over the Tories, said to be worth around ten seats. David Cameron tried to get this reversed with some intricate proposals for gerrymandering, but was foiled when the LibDems withdrew their support for his plan in revenge for the Tories’ sabotage of their own proposals for reform of the house of lords — to the great fury of many Tory MPs who are liable to lose their seats in May but who might have been saved if the Tory plan for re-drawing constituency boundaries had gone through. As you rightly say, in the past the boot was on the other foot, the Tories enjoying a marked advantage over Labour which used to waste thousands of votes in huge majorities in industrial seats while Tory support was more evenly spread. Thus at the 1951 general election the Conservatives won 13,717,850 votes while Labour won 13,948,385 (the greatest number of votes won by Labour before or since, I believe, and certainly more than in 1945) yet the Conservatives won 321 seats to Labour’s 295, so Churchill replaced Attlee as prime minister. In our system we elect an electoral college (namely the house of commons) which in turn chooses a government. The number of votes cast for the members of the electoral college is constitutionally irrelevant: it’s seats that count. Over a longish period the advantage that each of the main parties enjoys as a result of these imbalances is liable to change: in the election of October 1974, Labour under Harold Wilson won marginally fewer votes than Edward Heath’s Tories, but Labour won a few more seats and Wilson continued as prime minister, this time with a slim but decisive overall majority. Swings and roundabouts!

  4. john miles says:

    I’m no good at making forecasts, but there are one or two probabilities and virtual certainties around.

    One, apart from perhaps from Alex Salmond, Mr Cameron is easily the least worst available choice for prime minister, and you don’t need to be a rabid Tory to think so.
    99% certain, I would say.

    Two, it’s pretty certain both main parties will lose support to Ukip and the Greens.
    New Labour are already losing heavily to the SNP, and it’s on the cards that the rhetoric of property tycoon Jim Murphy will reinforce the trend.

    Three, it’s virtually certain there’l have to be a coalition between two ore more of the parties.
    Perhaps the tidiest would be one between the two who claim to represent Middle England, but for some reason that doesn’t yet seem very likely.

    Brian writes: Thank you. I agree with the first few words of your comment, but with nothing else. It seems to me beyond argument that David Cameron is one of the two or three worst prime ministers of the last 70 or 80 years, on virtually any reckoning: and that it’s almost inconceivable that as between him and Ed Miliband (the only two candidates), Miliband could or would be worse, while it’s quite possible that he would be a fine prime minister. Your suggestion that “it’s virtually certain there’l [sic] have to be a coalition between two ore [sic] more of the parties” ignores one of the central points in my post, namely that whatever the result of the election in terms of seats, another coalition is extremely unlikely, as well as highly undesirable.

  5. john miles says:

    Apologies for the typos.

    “It seems to me beyond argument that David Cameron is one of the two or three worst prime ministers of the last 70 or 80 years.”
    Why 70 or 80?
    Baldwin? Chamberlain? Churchill? Who?
    I don’t need more than about 30, or even fewer.

    “It’s almost inconceivable that … Miliband could or would be worse…”
    Almost maybe, but not quite.
    And there are plenty of people who wouldn’t agree with you..

    Not everybody thinks a coalition undesirable, but you’re probably quite right to say that in theory there’s no need for a government to hold a majority of seats.
    In practice though it’s highly probable an opposition coalition majority would come about pretty soon, making life for the government more or less impossible.

    But the future’s not ours to see,
    Che sera sera.

  6. Charlie says:

    The rise in the SNP is much to do with labour failing to understand how technology and trade change with time and making sure the workforce has the required skills.
    Britain has a satellite industry worth £7.5-9Bn but it is based in Surrey. Many Grand Prix teams are based in the UK , at Witney and Silverstone . When it came to ship building by the 1980s , the UK took 50% more hours to build a ship than Japan. As a former diplomat you should be aware of the impact of the 6 Day war on the closure of the Suez Canal : ships had to travel around South Africa. The Suez canal had limited to ship to a maximum of tonnage of I think 50KT. Now ships had to go around S Africa they could increase in size and oil tankers quickly increased from 50K T to 500K T. Yet in 1966, there were strikes on the Clyde and by seamen. Consequently, the orders for large tankers went to japan and shipping companies greatly reduced British crew numbers. Also , the increase in electronic controls and size of ships meant that more oil was carried by less seamen. A 500K T ship needs the same crew as a 50K T one, and electronic systems reduce the crew needs even further. The seaman’s strike of 1966 led to the Cayzer Family who owned British and Commonwealth ( the largest merchant shipping company in the 1950s) to start investing outside of shipping and by 1987 they sold it. Charles Cayzer set up Clan Line ( known as the Scottish Navy because it lost so many ships in WW1) in Glasgow and took over Union castle to form British and Commonwealth.

    Labour calls itself a progressive party yet never understands how progress in technology and industrialisation of countries changes employment. When India became independent it was the beginning of end of the Lancashire Cotton Industry and associated mechanical engineering and dye industries . When the transistor was created in 1947, it was the beginning of the end of many un and semi-skilled jobs which could be replaced by electronic and computer control systems. Ernie Bevin , a former docker said the British Empire never did anything for the British working man which shows how little Labour know about trade.

    Labour could have sent people to Japan and studied their construction methods for ships- Michael Martin, the Labour MP worked in the ships yards and became a union leader !. My uncle,a former officer in the Argylls, worked in shipping spoke, Japanese and lived in Yokohama in the 1960s and saw the UK ship construction industry was going to be left behind. As E Bevin ,said ” There is nothing more conservative than a British union leader!

    Unfortunately, The SNP appears to understand even less about trade and technology than Labour ,as shown by their belief in oil prices would remain at $100-$150.barrel.

    Manufacturing can return to industrialised countries- Time had good article on why manufacturing employment is increasing in the USA. The basics are below
    1. Chinese labour costs have rise 9 fold $0.5-$4.5/hr
    2. Container costs from China to W coast USA have trebled from about £1000-$3000.
    3. Shale gas/oil has reduced energy costs and ethane ( feed stock for some chemicals ) has resulted in chemical plants in Mexico being moved to the USA.
    4. 3 d printing has reduced R and D costs.
    5. Construction of factories outside of heavily unionised states ( VW has built a car plant in Alabama not Detroit).
    6. Education and training producing technician level personnel who run factories. Fewer and better educated personnel produce smaller weights of of technically advanced and expensive manufactured goods.

    A semi -skilled labourer working in steel mill or shipyard produces far higher tonnage of goods than someone building a satellite but they have far lower value. However, if Labour actually made Wilson’s ” White heat of technology ” a reality, then I think they could earn many votes.
    The absurd reality is that the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde have very good science and engineering faculties and the National engineering Lab is at Livingstone so why are satellites and grand prix cars not built in east Glasgow? Why has Labour who have been in power in Glasgow for decades not built on Glasgow’s and Scotland’s engineering heritage ? Why has Labour failed to tell people the education, technical skills and attitude required to obtain employment in high value advanced manufacturing companies?

  7. formula57 says:

    Challenge to the view you put forward that <i>”…should not and must not resign as prime minister until it’s clear that there is a specific alternative MP likely to be able to form a government that will win the support of a majority of members of the House of Commons”<i> is given in a recent post on Carl Gardner’s blog @ and has generated a lot of interesting comment there. I draw it to your attention as you might add or even receive some illumination. His chief point is that the PM should resign when it is clear he cannot or will not be able to command a majority in the ‘Commons and so irrespective of whether anyone else could – and that in such event, the leader of the largest other party should be made PM (even without the prospect of remaining so for very long). The new O’Donnell rules do not seem to be given credence.

  8. Brian says:

    Brian writes in reply to the comment by Formula57:  Thank you for drawing attention to this potentially important question, about which arguments may rage on and after 8 May: namely whether under the procedures laid down in Lord O’Donnell’s Cabinet Manual (written and approved by the party leaders just before the 2010 election and somewhat revised in 2011 in the light of it), an incumbent prime minister who has no realistic chance of getting majority approval in parliament for his continuance in office has a duty to postpone his resignation until a successor who plainly has that prospect has emerged from inter-party discussions.  In fact there is no clear answer to this question, as I have explained in a new blog post, Election Diary 26 April – E-Day minus 11, in which I quote the actual words of the Cabinet Manual.  At the time of the 2010 election the Manual did require Gordon Brown to stay in No 10 until it was clear (from the successful conclusion of the Tory-LibDem coalition negotiations) that Cameron would be sure of a majority in the House of Commons for the coalition under his premiership, although in practice Brown, being reviled for clinging to office long after he had obviously lost the election, decided not to wait for the conclusion of the Tory-LibDem negotiations,  and resigned in the face of desperate pleas from Nick Clegg to hang on a little longer until the Coalition Agreement was ready for signature.  I believe, although I can’t find a way to verify this, that it was only in the 2011 edition of the Cabinet Manual that the footnote was added (quoted in my new blog post) admitting that various authorities had challenged the assertion that there was such a duty on an incumbent prime minister who lost an election.  So if on 8 May either Cameron looks as if he just might be able to put together a Tory-led majority in the new House for his continuance as prime minister, or else he has no such prospect but it is uncertain whether Ed Miliband has a clear majority for his leadership of a new government either, there will be legitimate argument over whether Cameron has or has not got an obligation (or right) under the Cabinet Manual to remain in office until he loses a vote of confidence in the House of Commons.  Both sides in that argument will be able to quote different passages in the Cabinet Manual in their support.

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