How to vote on Thursday: a minority Labour government would be the best outcome
This election is necessarily mainly about Brexit, overwhelmingly the most challenging issue facing Britain. Opinions for and against Brexit, or against a hard Brexit as apparently favoured by Mrs May, cut across traditional Tory-Labour lines. How should we vote, those of us who would ideally still hope to see us Remain in the EU, or failing that, Remain in the single market or at least in the customs union? That view is accurately represented by the LibDems, but they have no hope of forming a government. Mrs May is firmly committed to leaving the EU, the single market and the customs union, which seems to rule out voting for Conservative party candidates. But her only rival for No 10, Jeremy Corbyn, has also committed his party to Brexit while remaining ambiguous about the single market – and many of us who have traditionally voted Labour have deep misgivings about Mr Corbyn’s capacity for leading and managing an effective government, given the present shambolic shadow cabinet and the dubious character of some of those closely surrounding and influencing Mr Corbyn. We may like many of his distinctive policies, but does he have the leadership qualities to put them into effect?
Britain’s best daily newspaper, the Financial Times, after weeks of critical comment on the Conservative campaign and of Mrs May’s Brexit policies, or lack of them, has nevertheless come out with an editorial endorsing the Conservative party and recommending a vote for Mrs May, mainly on the grounds that a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn would be even worse.
But the choice need not be between the two extremes of a Conservative government with an overall majority and a Labour government with an overall majority. The risk of an unconstrained hard-left Corbyn government with an overall majority, often represented by the Tories as the only available alternative to Mrs May and her hard Brexit, must be too remote (on the evidence of the polls) to be a serious factor in determining how to vote.
There is at least one other possible outcome to this election – not by any means the likeliest (which remains a sizeable majority for Mrs May), but possible. I can see the force of the argument that however inadequate, obstinate, fickle and sub-standard Mrs May is increasingly showing herself to be, Jeremy Corbyn and his present hopeless shadow cabinet look likely to be even worse – with the seemingly logical corollary that the least bad course is to hold your nose and vote Conservative (few of us have the option to vote for or against Mrs May or Jeremy Corbyn themselves). However, the polls are beginning to suggest that if (a big if) younger voters actually turn out and vote (mostly Labour) in unprecedented numbers, the result might just conceivably be a hung parliament, with the Tories probably the largest single party in the new House of Commons but without an overall majority. This might well pave the way to an informal “confidence and supply” understanding under which there could be a minority Labour government (probably but not necessarily led by Mr Corbyn as prime minister) able to govern with the highly selective and conditional support of the LibDems, Greens, Plaid and SNP, and a handful of others. The necessity of retaining the support of the other centre-left parties would helpfully constrain the more fanciful and expensive ambitions of Labour’s hard left, and the requirement to keep the LibDems onside should move a Labour minority government towards a much more pro-European and more strongly Brexit-sceptical position in which an eventual second referendum on the terms of a negotiated agreement with the rest of the EU, including a Remain option, could become a real possibility.
Even if Mr Corbyn were to remain the titular head of the minority government, the more centrist policies it would have to pursue should enable many talented and reputable members of the Labour party, currently unwilling to serve in Corbyn’s shambolic shadow cabinet, to join his real-life Cabinet, adding to the good-sense ballast keeping the ship stable and on a realistic course, notwithstanding the frailties and shortcomings of its captain. The support of the civil service would also be a stabilising factor discouraging folly and extremism. In such circumstances Labour’s election manifesto could form a useful road-map capable of commanding the general support of the other centre-left parties without the need for them to commit themselves to every dot and comma of its text.
The scenario may seem improbable, but at least two reputable opinion polls are suggesting its possibility. The FT, like me, would surely regard it as a vastly superior outcome to a renewed May government with a comfortable majority, unshakably committed to a hard Brexit, delusional about the realities of Britain outside the EU, and relentlessly hostile to any idea of giving the British people the right to pronounce itself satisfied or otherwise with whatever Brexit deal (or ‘no deal’?) that Mrs May and her “team” might come up with in a few months’ time. Yet the FT’s recommendation that we should vote Conservative, if followed, would increase the danger of that outcome. The better alternative, surely, is a minority Labour government governing with the conditional support of the other centre-left parties (not in a coalition, which is clearly unthinkable). The way to make that outcome likelier can only be to vote Labour, or for whichever other candidate in each constituency has the best chance of beating the Conservative. That accordingly is the Ephems recommendation for next Thursday.
As a tailpiece, what would be the mechanics of establishing a minority Labour government with an explicit or implicit “confidence and supply” understanding with the other centre-left parties? If, as seems inevitable, the Conservative party emerges from the election as the biggest single party, that in itself would not necessarily entitle it to form a minority government if it had failed to win an overall majority. Mrs May, as the incumbent prime minister and leader of the biggest single party in the House of Commons, would be entitled to stay on in No 10 and to present a Conservative Queen’s Speech to the House of Commons setting out her government’s policies and intentions. If however the opposition majority in the House of Commons declined to approve that Queen’s Speech, and then went on to defeat Mrs May in a vote of confidence, Mrs May would be obliged to resign. The likeliest and logical next step would be for the Queen to invite Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the next biggest party, to try to form a government that would command the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons. (Thus the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, is dangerously wrong to imply that Labour would need to be the biggest single party in order to form a minority government: but Mrs May would need to lose a vote of confidence and resign before Labour could be offered a chance to do so.)
Both Mr Corbyn and Ms Thornberry also say that there could be no ‘deal’ with the leaders of the other centre-left parties, although the latter hints at ‘conversations’ (“Those are the conversations we have had”) under which the other parties would indicate an intention to support a minority Labour government in motions of confidence and in votes on budget appropriations, but not necessarily on every policy proposal put forward by the Labour government. Ms Thornberry seems to envisage that there would not even be a tacit understanding that the other parties would give this limited and selective support to a minority Labour government: if they failed to give it and the government fell in consequence, the smaller parties would have to explain to their supporters why they had acted in such a way as to restore the Conservative party to office. This would however be a tenuous basis on which to form a minority government, which would be unlikely to last long without a much firmer understanding with other parties. Without some such quotable understanding – well short of a coalition or a formal ‘deal’ – the Queen might not even feel justified in inviting Jeremy Corbyn to form a government in the event of Mrs May losing a vote of confidence and resigning as prime minister: there might be a stronger case for a different Tory, such as Amber Rudd or David Davies, to be able to form a minority government able to command majority support in the House of Commons. Mr Corbyn and Ms Thornberry should be careful about denying too emphatically that there can be any kind of understanding with other parties. The possibility of a minority Labour government, however remote, would almost certainly depend on there being such an understanding, however informal. The Labour leadership, if it has any sense, should be urgently discussing all these matters with the other centre-left party leaders between now and Thursday, if for any reason, or lack of one, it has not already done so.