Writing in the Sunday Times today, Michael Portillo forecasts that David Cameron will be Prime Minister “whatever the Maths.” In other words, even if there is a hung Parliament which gives Labour a larger number of seats, Labour will not be allowed to be the Party of Government.
If the Conservatives are the largest party in Parliament, then there is no doubt that David Cameron will form the next Government. The scenario that I have trouble with is where Labour has the largest number of seats in a hung parliament but where that number is still significantly ahead of the Conservatives.
“If Labour fails to secure a majority — even if it wins more seats than the Conservatives — it ought to be booted out and in all likelihood would be.”
Portillo’s argument centres on the attitude of the minority parties, particularly the Liberal Democrats. He says
“It would be especially difficult for the Liberal Democrats to support Labour if it had lost to the Tories in terms of the popular vote — the number of actual votes cast — which seems all but certain.”
Thre is little doubt that Clegg would not support Labour if the Conservatives were the largest party in Parliament. Clegg partly declared his position on this scenario more than 18 months ago. Clegg would support the setting of a budget but reserve the right to oppose public non-financial measures taken by the Government. In the first year of the new parliament (at least), Cameron would effectively have a free hand to govern.
What is Clegg’s position if Labour is the largest party?
The Conservatives only need a (uniform) swing of 1.5% against Labour to become the largest party in terms of the number of votes cast. However, because the Conservatives pile up their supporters in the safe seats, they would need a (uniform) swing of 4.4% to become the party in Parliament with the largest number of seats (source: UK polling report swing calculator).
Speaking to the BBC on the Andrew Marr show, Nick Clegg recently said
“Whichever party has the strongest mandate from the British people, it seems to me obvious in a democracy they have the first right to seek to try and govern, either on their own or with others “
What does “strongest mandate” mean – the largest number of MPs or the largest number of votes cast? Unfortunately, the point was not properly “nailed” in that interview.
If it means the largest number of votes cast, then on a 1.5% uniform swing, the Conservatives could end up with just 234 seats compared with Labour’s 324. Labour would only be 2 seats short of an overall majority in Parliament. In practice, with Sinn Fein winning 5 seats and not sitting in parliament, they would effectively have an overall majority.
Let us now suppose that there is a uniform swing against Labour of 4.39%. In that scenario, the Conservatives are just short of being the largest party in Parliament. Labour would be the largest party in Parliament with 282 seats but with only 31.8% of the votes cast. The Conservatives would have 37.66% of the vote and 281 seats. Labour would be 44 seats short of an overall majority. There is no way that Labour could effectively govern without the support of the Lib Dems. The Conservatives might be able to form a Government with the forbearance of the Lib Dems but it would be highly unstable. It would not be possible for the Conservatives to legislate the most controversial aspects of their manifesto. A further General Election (perhaps within 2 years) would seem likely.
In between the two extremes of Labour having the largest number of seats in a hung parliament, there is a grey area where the smaller minority parties could make the difference. In such a scenario, MPs from the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP and the DUP could extract concessions from Labour to keep them in power. For example, they could agree not to alter the Barnett formula. Such a strategy would not be without considerable risk for Labour in the medium and longer term.
In the end, the onus is on the Prime Minister to offer his resignation to the Queen. If Labour is still the largest parliamentary party, they would be within their rights to review the possibility of continuing in Government. There is already some historical precedent.
In February 1974, Labour won the largest number of seats (301 against 297 for the Conservatives) but fell short of an overall majority by 19 seats. The outgoing Prime Minister, Ted Heath, did not resign immediately. He only did so after attempting to form a coalition Government with the Liberals, led by Jeremy Thorpe. In theory Ted Heath could have tried to form a coalition with the Ulster Unionists (then 11 MPs) but the price would have been the dismantling of Sunningdale. Harold Wilson became prime minister for the second time but his Government did not have the stability that it needed. After some of its bills were voted down in the Commons, Wilson called another general election later that year. Labour won the October 1974 election with a slim overall majority. They held power until May 1979.
In theory, even if Labour is the largest party in a hung Parliament, they could continue in Government so long as they are not too far short of an overall majority. It is hard to say what the “tipping” point would be here. Labour could probably just about continue in power 20 short of an overall majority with the sort of deal that I have suggested. Labour would be in this position with a uniform swing against them of about 2.7%. The likelihood?
In their worst opinion poll this year (November 15), the Conservative lead was only 6%. (Con 37%, Lab 31%, L.Dem 17%) Even on those figures, the Conservatives would still (just) be the largest party in Parliament.
The bookies will not take your bet on David Cameron becoming Prime Minister. However, the events of 1974 demonstrate how difficult it is for the party in power to govern efficiently and securely without a sufficient number of MPs. It also is a reminder to all of us in the Conservative Party and the UUP that the votes cast for the Northern Ireland Parliamentary seats will play a crucial part in determining the strength of the next UK Government.
Filed under: David Cameron, General Election, Gordon Brown, Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, Northern ireland, Northern Ireland politics, UK Parliament, ulster unionist party, UUP, Westminster Tagged: | Conservative Party, David Cameron, Economy, Edward Heath, General Election, Gordon Brown, Harold Wilson, Hung Parliament, Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, Northern ireland, Northern Ireland politics, Prime Minister, Tory-UUP linkup, UK Parliament, ulster unionist party, UUP, Westminster