Election Diary, 26 April — E-Day Minus 11
Nick Clegg has finally come clean: as far as he’s concerned (and as leader of the LibDems, he’s hardly unconcerned), the LibDems won’t vote to support a Labour minority government: they disagree with the Tories’ plans for more and harsher cuts and the risks they want to take with Britain’s membership of the EU, but Mr Clegg still yearns for another spell of coalition with the Conservatives. He even repeatedly refuses to rule out LibDem acquiescence in an in/out EU referendum in 2017, putting Britain’s future in Europe at grave and unnecessary risk, if he can get a Tory concession in return, e.g. agreement to further raising of the income tax threshold, Clegg’s personal obsession, even though it benefits the rich more than anyone else and the poorest not at all. Mr Clegg has put a double lock on his counter-intuitive choice of the Tories over Labour: according to the Clegg doctrine, the party which comes second in terms of seats (and/or votes, whichever suits Mr Clegg) — i.e. possibly Labour — has no right to form a government, even if it has the support of the majority of members of the House of Commons (which is constitutional rubbish), and if nevertheless it does so, it will “lack legitimacy” and therefore have no mandate to govern.
But just in case Labour does win more seats and/or votes than the Conservatives, quick-witted Nick has a fall-back position: the LibDems couldn’t possibly support a minority government which relied for its majorities in the House on the votes of a party (the SNP) whose long-term aim is the break-up of the United Kingdom. So according to Clegg, the parliamentary votes of SNP MPs, democratically elected to the parliament of the whole of the UK on exactly the same basis as all the other elected MPs, aren’t constitutionally valid because Mr Clegg doesn’t approve of their party’s long-term objective — which isn’t anyway an issue in this election. It’s lucky that Nick Clegg wasn’t involved in the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement under which Sinn Fein’s elected members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are not only recognised as having a legitimate voice in the devolved parliament of Northern Ireland: they have guaranteed representation in the devolved, power-sharing government of Northern Ireland, even though Sinn Fein’s long-term aim is to detach the province from the UK. Let’s hope that the rank and file members of Clegg’s party are not quite as fastidious as their current leader. With luck he might even lose his seat anyway.
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There’s increasing discussion in the blogosphere, and to a lesser extent in the print and electronic media, about exactly what procedures are supposed to be observed once it’s clear that the new parliament after 7 May is again hung (possibly even well hung). A scholarly and exhaustively researched article on this on the Head of Legal’s blog is compulsory reading. Much depends on the 2011 vintage Guide to forming a government in a hung parliament, in the Cabinet Manual produced principally by the then Cabinet Secretary, now Lord (Gus) O’Donnell, aided and abetted by Professor Lord (Peter) Hennessy and by the director of the Constitution Unit at University College London, Professor Robert Hazell, whose prescient Guardian article a month before the 2010 election makes interesting reading now — as does Chapter 2 of Peter Hennessy’s book The Prime Minister (2000), in which he called 15 years ago for the codification of the respective roles of the Monarch and the party leaders in choosing a prime minister.
One important ambiguity in the Cabinet Manual could be an important feature of largely ill-informed debate from 8 May onwards: whether or not Cameron, as incumbent prime minister, has a constitutional duty, if Labour with its natural allies seem likely to have a majority in the new House, to defer his resignation until it’s clear that there’s a successor with an assured majority ready to take over. The Manual says he should wait:
The Prime Minister is expected to resign where [sic] it is clear that he or she does not have the confidence of the House of Commons and that an alternative government does have the confidence.[Cabinet Manual, 2.19; my emphasis].
but admits in a footnote that not all authorities agree:
12 It has been suggested in evidence to select committees that the incumbent Prime Minister’s responsibility involves a duty to remain in office until it is clear who should be appointed in their place … Whether the responsibilities of the Prime Minister in these circumstances amount to a duty and how far they extend has been questioned, and the House of Lords Constitution Committee concluded that an incumbent Prime Minister has no duty to remain in office following an inconclusive general election until it is clear what form any alternative government might take…
In 2010 Gordon Brown was pressed to stay in No 10 still as nominal prime minister despite having decisively lost the election, until the Tories and Libdems had completed their negotiation of a coalition agreement, permitting Cameron then to be invited to form a government, but Brown understandably grew sick of being reviled in the Tory press for ‘hanging on to office long after it had become clear that he had lost the election’, and decided to resign anyway, rejecting frantic appeals from Nick Clegg to wait a little longer until his negotiations with the Tories could be completed and the Coalition Agreement signed. In this May’s election, it may be unclear, even after all the results are in, which of Cameron or Miliband will be able to muster enough support from other parties to put together an overall majority in the new House. In that case Cameron will be entitled to remain in office long enough to submit a programme for government (the Queen’s Speech) to the new House and see whether he can muster a majority of MPs to support it. In the interval between 8 May and the opening of the new parliament (now to be longer than the former interval of one week) the political parties are expected by the Manual to try to agree among themselves on possible coalitions, alliances or understandings that would permit a single party leader, whether the incumbent or his rival, to be identified as having the confidence of a majority in the House, and not to leave the choice to the Queen acting after discreet soundings by her personal advisers and other independent dignitaries, as was the practice in the past. This would then be tested in the vote on the Queen’s Speech (written by the prime minister, of course), and if necessary in a subsequent vote on an alternative Queen’s Speech submitted by the party leader with the next most likely prospect of winning a majority for it.
The received wisdom as of today (26 April) seems to be that if Labour and the Tories remain neck-and-neck in the polls right up to 7 May, Labour is likely to win a few more seats than the Conservatives and that Labour’s probable support from the smaller parties (SNP, Plaid, SDLP, Greens), with or without any kind of ‘deal’ with the SNP, will probably exceed that for the Tories (UKIP, DUP etc). This suggests that the odds are narrowly on Miliband as the next prime minister. But those calculations could well be upset by a substantial bloc of LibDems, if it materialises, throwing in their lot once again with the Tories, as Clegg clearly wants to do. Hence the Tories’ increasingly shrill attempts to spread panic at the prospect of a minority Labour government “propped up by” (meaning selectively supported by the votes of, among others,) an “illegitimate” SNP bent on the destruction of the UK. This is constitutional and political nonsense, but it may yet have a decisive resonance in England, especially if Mr Clegg has (1) a seat in parliament, (2) the numbers, and (3) his way with his members. How alarming that the LibDem leader has such a tenuous grip on constitutional propriety and reality!