Hanging on until the Queen’s Speech (Pt. 3)

Three days ago I spelled out in detail the implications as I see them of the constitution and the new rules promulgated by the Cabinet Secretary for the rights and duties of an incumbent prime minister after an election has resulted in a hung parliament.  The clear message of this analysis was that if there’s a hung parliament after 6 May, whatever the result in terms of votes or seats, Gordon Brown would have not only the right but also the duty not to resign before he had faced the new  parliament and submitted a programme for government in the Queen’s Speech, being careful to ensure that his programme was one which the LibDems would find it virtually impossible to vote against.  In other words, the decision that the LibDems will need to take is not (as the media pundits all seem to assume) “whether to support Labour or the Conservatives as the new government” but rather whether to defeat or support a Labour government’s Queen’s Speech that promises a referendum on electoral reform, tax reform to take the poorest out of tax, restructuring of the banks, a new approach to civil liberties, re-examination in the defence review of the decision to replace Trident, provision to bring illegal immigrants who have been here for 10 years into the legal economy and the tax system, and a cornucopia of other LibDem shibboleths.

I also summarised this argument in a letter to the Guardian which was published today (26 April) in only slightly truncated form (text here).   For the record, here’s the text of my letter as submitted on Saturday to the Guardian:

Some opinion polls suggest that on 6 May Labour may win fewer votes than the Conservatives (and possibly even than the LibDems) but still emerge as the party with the most seats in the House of Commons.  If that happens there’ll be demands from the right-wing press and the Tories for Gordon Brown to resign immediately, because he will have ‘lost the election’ in terms of votes.

However the new rules introduced by the Cabinet Secretary require the incumbent prime minister in a hung parliament to remain in office until there’s a broad consensus on a successor who will demonstrably command the confidence of a majority of MPs in his government and its programme;  and there are sound precedents for the party with the most seats to form a government, or to stay in office, even if it has won fewer votes than its opponent (elections in 1951 and twice in 1974).  As the incumbent prime minister Brown will have the right to continue in office and to meet parliament with a policy programme for the House to support or reject (Nick Clegg: the power balancer, 19 April).  As long as the LibDems have not declared whether they will vote to live with a minority Labour government or a minority Conservative one, it will not be certain that David Cameron would have a better prospect of securing majority support for his programme than Gordon Brown.

Even if Labour wins marginally fewer seats than the Tories, as well as fewer votes, Gordon Brown should exercise his right and duty to remain in office as required by the Cabinet Secretary’s code, offer a moderate policy programme including a referendum on electoral ‘reform’ and other items from the LibDems’ list of priorities, and challenge the LibDems to vote against it in the debate on the Queen’s Speech — in the knowledge that by rejecting it they will be installing a Cameron government in No. 10 which will be implacably opposed to any change in the electoral system.  The LibDems would then be in no position to use their balance-of-power votes to defeat — or even threaten to defeat — the new Conservative government which they had voted into office, having just chosen to eject a Labour one.  A premature resignation by Mr Brown would needlessly throw away all these possibilities.

I’m much heartened to see that a committed Conservative blogger has devoted a whole post to my earlier piece here, noting that it has also appeared in LabourList, and describing it as “A truly excellent, but entirely unnerving, article“, and sadly concluding that

Simply put, if my understanding of the piece is correct, should a hung parliament of one form or another be the outcome in which Nick Clegg held the balance of power, there would be no legal or even moral obligation for Brown to resign, so Clegg would be forced to bring down the Labour government by refusing to endorse the Queen’s Speech. This would trigger another general election which, you have to think, would hardly be in the Liberal Democrat’s best interest. The chances are, therefore, that Clegg would do a deal with Brown and Brown would continue as Prime Minister for the time being, despite having a smaller share of the vote than the Conservative Party.

This however isn’t entirely correct:  in my scenario, if the LibDems vote to defeat a Labour Queen’s speech despite its programme including electoral reform and most of the other things on the LibDem wish-list, the consequence would be a Conservative government which would neither offer nor need to offer the LibDems anything at all.  Only if they were foolish enough to vote that government down as well would there be another election immediately — in which the LibDems, having behaved so irrationally and irresponsibly in defeating both a Labour and a Conservative government in quick succession, could expect to be wiped out, with the Tories winning an overall majority in the second poll.  Surely even the LibDems would not commit electoral suicide in such a spectacular way?

All this, of course, is posited on there being a hung parliament after 6 May.  I remain unconvinced that this will happen.  But if it does, let’s hope that the prime minister will stick to his guns right up to the vote on his government’s Queen’s Speech.  If he does, he will maximise the chances, against all the odds, of emerging with a de facto alliance of convenience with the LibDems that will democratically reflect the overall majority in the election, both in votes and in seats, for the centre-left.  For a clear centre-left victory is the one thing it’s perfectly safe to forecast.


3 Responses

  1. AnneJGP says:

    These are fascinating times, Brian; thank you for these articles which I’ve just discovered.

    Surely there would be some haggling between Labour & the Lib Dems in the process of putting the Queen’s Speech together? They may be both centre-left parties but the differences in their policies are presumably there for a good reason and those reasons can’t be lightly set aside. Whatever Labour offers the Lib Dems has to fit in with its own slate of policies and, with the best will in the world, merging the two sets won’t be quick work. What I’m saying is, Mr Brown would surely know in advance at least that Mr Clegg would be recommending his MPs to accept or reject the Speech.

    At the same time, the government has to tackle the still-quite-difficult economic situation. Are the policies of the two parties sufficiently close to make this easy?

    Brian writes: Thank you very much, Anne, for making this interesting point. I’m not at all sure how this will pan out if there’s a hung parliament after 6 May. Will the LibDems be willing to discuss a possible agreed slate of policies for the Queen’s Speech with either Gordon Brown or David Cameron, when even willingness to discuss these matters might imply willingness to enter into some form of partnership, or even coalition? Would the LibDems talk first (or only) to Cameron (if the Tories have won more votes than anyone else) or first or only to Labour (if Labour comes first or second in votes) or simultaneously to both? I agree that merging Labour and LibDem programmes would be extremely difficult, but wouldn’t merging Conservative and LibDem policies be even harder? These issues are usefully analysed on the Guardian website by Professor Robert Hazell here. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Hazell has been an influential adviser behind the scenes to both the Cabinet Secretary (in the context of the new rules on hung parliaments) and the party leaders. It’s weird that this article has been consigned to Comment is Free and not printed in the Guardian as such.

    Jackie Ashley’s column in today’s Guardian, on the differences and common ground between the two pairs of parties, is also relevant to your comment, and well worth reading.

    My guess, totally lacking evidence to support it, is that already representatives of both Brown and Cameron are quietly and deniably talking to Clegg’s people (separately, of course) and sounding each other out about the options and possibilities, identifying common ground and irreconcilable differences, noncommittally floating proposals and probing for possible responses, etc. At any rate, it would be extremely surprising if some such conversations were not already taking place, and extremely irresponsible on the part of all the parties if they are not.

  2. Neil Harding says:

    Brian, good to see you finally think a referendum on PR is neccesary. I know you have been a long time opponent. I imagine even you were shocked by the thought that the party coming first in votes ends up with half the seats as the party coming third. This has brought home to the masses that something is seriously rotten with our supposed democracy. This electoral campaign has also been a pleasure because it has opened a lot of people’s eyes to the overt right-wing bias in the press. We need to open up both our electoral system and our ‘free press’ to more diverse interests. An eternal choice of two parties in government and of a national press owned by just 4 media barons is just not democracy.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Neil. I have always recognised that such a major change as a switch to PR for elections to the house of commons would need to be approved in a referendum and I’m surprised that you should think that I have only just come round to that view. It certainly doesn’t mean that I have been converted to the supposed merits of PR, however. I would indeed be shocked by the possible election outcome you outline — the party with most votes winning only half the number of seats of the party coming third in terms of votes — if I thought it at all likely, but since I don’t expect the LibDems to win more votes than the Conservatives, as you seem to predict, and as I still think Labour will probably win more votes than the LibDems too (unless there’s another spectacular upset in tomorrow’s TV debate), I hope I’m right in finding your scenario implausible, although not impossible in this crazy and unpredictable world that our politics has entered.

    I accept of course that First Past the Post is imperfect and can sometimes deliver anomalous results, although in the past these have tended to balance out over time (unfair to Labour in 1951 and rather less unfair to the Conservatives in 1974). The electoral disadvantage currently suffered by the Conservatives vis-a-vis Labour is not entirely the result of the electoral system, by the way. But any electoral system so far devised, including all the different versions of PR, is also imperfect and they all produce anomalous results, either always or sometimes. The most questionable feature of PR is that it will invariably deliver hung parliaments, not just occasionally like FPTP but always; and also that it will tend to lead to the fragmentation of the larger parties and thus to highly unpredictable election results, with a plethora of small parties rushing about trying to find partners with enough collective representation in parliament to constitute a fleeting majority and thus able to form a government. I’m not convinced that this will amount to an improvement either in our democracy or in the calibre of our governments. But if support for the LibDems stays up at roughly the same level as that for the other two main parties, as it is now, we’re suddenly in a three-horse race and it’s necessary in that case to re-examine the electoral system options to see what that will mean for each of them.

    I agree about the malign influence of the predominantly right-wing press and of its handful of owners, but I haven’t the slightest idea what can be done about it.

  3. Brian says:

    I am flattered to find that my post (above), as cross-posted in LabourList, is the target of a scornful attack over at NextLeft, already re-posted in http://www.homeeducationschool.com (which doesn’t seem to allow comments in reply) and in liberalconspiracy.org. My reply in NextLeft and the resulting exchanges with the author of the assault, Stuart White, a lecturer in Politics at Oxford University and director of its Public Policy Unit, are at http://bit.ly/a2qpkj. I’m bound to say I’m surprised that an Oxford politics lecturer should display such a cavalier attitude to such a significant (if controversial) feature of the British constitution as the new Chapter 6 of the Cabinet Manual, which may play such a major role in the next few weeks (unless of course we don’t get a hung parliament after all!).