What Gordon’s people should say to Clegg’s people if parliament’s hung

If there’s a hung parliament after Thursday’s election, whatever the position in terms of votes cast and seats won, Gordon Brown constitutionally remains prime minister until and unless someone else can demonstrate beyond doubt that he is better able than Brown to command the confidence of a majority of MPs.  I have discussed these rules and their consequences here, here, here and here, and there’s no need to set them out again.  Instead, here’s what Douglas Alexander (for example) should say to (for example) the LibDem shadow home secretary Chris Huhne when he goes to see him on Gordon Brown’s behalf on Friday afternoon, after it has become clear that no single party has won an overall majority in the House of Commons:

“Chris, Gordon has asked me to come and see you to let you know what our intentions are now that we know there’s a hung parliament.  Gordon thinks you and Nick [Clegg] and your other colleagues have a right to know how he intends to proceed.  We both recognise that Gordon is permitted — actually under the rules he’s required — to remain in office with a caretaker Labour government until he has met the new parliament and tested by means of the vote on the Queen’s Speech whether he still commands the confidence of the majority of members of the House of Commons.  We realise that a lot will depend on how you and your LibDem colleagues decide to vote on our Queen’s Speech.  It seems to Gordon only fair that you and Nick should have an indication in advance of what we’re going to put in the Queen’s Speech as the programme of a centre-left government for the coming year.

“Well, we’re going to promise a referendum within six months on the electoral system for the House of Commons.  It will include some form of PR as one of the options, and we want to discuss with you what form of PR that option should be.  We’re also going to promise to reform the tax system so as to take more of the poorest people out of any tax liability and to increase the tax liability of the richest.  We want to make taxes fairer in other ways too, and again we want to discuss with you how best to achieve that.  We shall promise to set up an inquiry under a LibDem Chairperson (Vince, perhaps?) to make proposals on how best to split the high street banks from the casino speculators, and also to recommend how best to improve regulation of hedge funds and other speculative investment banks and funds.  We have an open mind about the future of control orders and we shall promise to suspend their operation for two years and then to set up an all-party review of whether we really need to reinstate them.  We shall institute an independent review of prisons legislation, including Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection, to recommend the best and safest ways of identifying those now in prison who are not being rehabilitated there, and who don’t need to be in prison to protect the public, so that we can transfer them to different forms of rehabilitation and monitoring in the community and thus reduce prison over-crowding.  Sentencing policy will be reformed accordingly.  We are prepared to include the question of the renewal of Trident in the defence review to take place in the autumn, and we want all the major parties to take part in that review.  We’ll be suspending the introduction of ID cards until we are well out of recession and at that point we’ll have an independent review of the need for them.  And we’ll set up an all-party committee to try to agree on measures to control discretionary immigration in a fair and humane way, including what to do about illegal immigrants who have settled here for 10 years or more and who have become good, law-abiding citizens contributing to the economy and to society.

“We’re not asking you to give us your reactions to these proposals now, still less to enter into negotiations with us about them, or about other measures that you would like — of course we’ll listen to anything you might want to say and any further suggestions you might have, but we don’t think it would be fair to the electorate or to the other parties to get into any kind of process of bargaining or laying down conditions.  And we won’t make any promises to you or anyone else going beyond what I have just told you.

“We hope you, Nick and your other colleagues will think very carefully about what I have said.  Of course it’s your absolute right to vote against a Queen’s Speech on the lines of what we’re proposing, or to abstain on it.  But you must realise that if you do, the certain consequence will be that Gordon will resign and Dave Cameron will be invited to form a minority Conservative government.  I doubt if his government’s programme will contain any of the promises or policies that we shall be putting before the House.  If you LibDems were to vote again to defeat that government, the LibDems would be rightly blamed for making it impossible for any government to govern, at a time when the confidence of business and the markets is so vitally important to our country:  so you would be wiped out at the fresh election that would be bound to follow.  Any hope of electoral reform would have been lost for another generation.  There’d be a run on sterling, interest rates would be forced up, unemployment would increase and the beginnings of economic recovery would be throttled at birth.  All that would flow from a LibDem rejection of the programme we’ll be submitting to parliament.

“You and Nick will need to think about all this and we’re not asking for your comments or decision in advance.  We just thought you ought to know.  No — I don’t want to give Gordon your reactions now.  Let’s go and have a beer and discuss football.

“Oh — by the way:  of course none of this will be possible if Nick Clegg is foolish enough to tell the Palace, or the Daily Mail, that he and the LibDems have decided definitely to form an alliance with Cameron and the Tories and to support whatever programme Cameron puts forward in a Tory Queen’s Speech.   If that happened Gordon and the rest of us would have to resign straight away and Cameron would become prime minister.  You would have thrown away the possibility of a centre-left reformist government based on the centre-left majority in the House of Commons following the election.  What you would gain in return I’m not at all sure.  But that’s of course up to you.

“One last point.  Strictly between ourselves, Gordon has told me that whatever happens he’s definitely going to step down in six months’ time and retire from politics altogether.  He wants to devote himself to charity work and to spend more time with his family.  But he would love to be able to leave behind a stable centre-left government based on a close LibDem-Labour collaboration that would have the best chance of safeguarding the economic recovery and building on his legacy.  Now, what about that beer?”

Have you got that, Gordon and Duggie?

Postscript:  Sunder Katwala’s piece on the Fabian Society’s blog, Next Left, at —


— should be required and urgent reading for everyone even slightly to the left of George Osborne (please also read my Comment on it).  Katwala predicts in excruciating and all too plausible detail the intense unconstitutional pressures that the Tories and their fat cat friends in the City are already planning to bring to bear in the event of a hung parliament in order to prevent exactly the kind of outcome enivsaged above.  It seems (e.g. from an extraordinary report in today’s Guardian) that Cameron may be planning to declare himself the winner of the election even when there is still a genuine possibility that a centre-left combination may have a far better chance of commanding the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons.  If Cameron were in effect to declare himself prime minister when Brown was still lawfully in office as head of a Labour government, or  demanded that the Queen should dismiss Brown and appoint himself prime minister instead, when there was no guarantee that he would be better placed than Brown to win the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons,  he would not only be dragging the Queen into an insupportable position: he would also in effect be staging a coup d’état and precipitating a constitutional crisis of a magnitude unprecedented in modern times.


6 Responses

  1. Tim Worstall says:

    “If Cameron were in effect to declare himself prime minister”
    Shock, horror!
    Politician will say and do damn near anything to gain power.
    Jeepers Brian, you’ve been around long enough to know that this ain’t exactly unusual behaviour…..

    Brian writes: Thanks, Tim. I can imagine Cameron in this situation claiming that he has won the election and is therefore entitled to be invited to try to form a government. Nothing unusual there. But if he actually declares himself prime minister and invokes the combined pressure of the City and the international markets, the defence establishment, all the right-wing media including Sky News, the Sun and the Murdoch press, all the elected and defeated Tory candidates, and half the animals in the London Zoo, to yell and scream at Brown to resign at once to allow the new rightful prime minister into No. 10 forthwith: would that be unusual behaviour? It certainly seems pretty unusual to me. It’s also unconstitutional, probably illegal and conceivably treasonable. If this campaign of pressure were to succeed, Brown surrenders to it and goes to the Palace to resign, the Queen would be entirely justified in refusing to accept his resignation and asking Brown to test his position by presenting a Labour Queen’s speech to the new parliament. (Whether she would risk her position by doing so is of course another matter.)

    The position would be different if Clegg were to come out with a promise to support a new Cameron government. But what conceivable advantage could he expect to gain by committing political suicide like that?

  2. Pete Kercher says:

    Thanks for the post, Brian, and the link that makes very interesting reading. We live in fascinating times: why, even the parliamentary practice in the good old UK is crawling – albeit very, very reluctantly – into the twentieth century at last! No, that’s not a typo.
    Cameron about to launch a coup d’état? Who does he think he is? GWB?
    I was always under the impression that it was the prerogative of the monarch to call an individual to the Palace in order to form a government, yet today I am reading about a scenario in which Cameron arrogates to himself a very shaky and not at all democratic “right” to “declare himself Prime Minister” on the strength of gathering some 33-35% of a popular vote, which in turn will probably represent some 65% of the eligible electorate (I know it is not immediately material, but it is worth considering that this translates into about 22-23% of the eligible electorate). Such a revolutionary step is hardly “Conservative” by any stretch of the imagination: even Hitler waited until Hindenburg invited him to form the government!
    This step would, apparently, be “legitimate” by virtue of his leading the largest single block of seats in the House of Commons. It appears to me, however, that the person who leads the largest single block of seats is not necessarily the individual who leads the largest group identifying with a single party label, but the one who leads the largest group identifying with a single government programme, which is exactly what normally results from proper coalition discussions in mature democracies.
    It need not take a great deal of time for this to happen: indeed, you have sketched some rough outlines here, Brian.
    But if I were leading a party that has scored a rather substantial popular vote and I were approached as you suggest, I rather think I would make the point that my 28-30% of the electorate has just as much right to have its hand on some of the levers of power a your 28-30%, if you are inviting me to make a partnership. In other words, I would expect to be at least invited to consider taking part in the government, appointing Ministers and sitting in Cabinet. It may be that, on second thoughts and considering the pros and cons – also in agreement with you – I would then decide to support you and an agreed programme externally, although that would rather weaken the concept of “the largest group identifying with a single government programme” that I mentioned above.
    Sooner or later, coalition government will come to the UK. I believe the sooner the better, for reasons I’ve stated before. Because if we suppose Clegg were to accept this proposal and electoral reform were enacted, is it at all feasible that governments could be formed in future in the same way? By a single party commanding about one third of the House of Commons? I think not, so perhaps it would be better the take the plunge now… and get real, as Gordon Brown said the other day.
    However, I have another doubt that is irking me about this whole scenario. You state, Brian, that if the LibDems were to refuse to support Brown and then vote down the Tories, the resulting mess would be their fault alone and they would lose votes. I beg to differ.
    Presumably, the Cameron attempt would be voted down by Labour as well as LibDems. I fail to comprehend why Labour is assumed to have a divine right to vote aginst a Tory government and “get away with it”, as it were, while the entire obrobrium of sliding sterlng, financial uncertainty etc, should be borne by the LibDems alone. Their voters have just as much right as Labour voters to refuse to be identified with Cameron, yet you persist in putting all the weight of the nation’s responsibilities on their shoulders alone, leaving Labour to get off scot-free and fight another day. In consideraton for all this sole responiblity for the nation’s ills, you are not even offering a proper partnership, with Ministries, in your hypothetical scenario: don’t forget that GB needs to sweeten the bitter pill for the LibDems, whose voters do not really want a partnership with Labour either  (because if they did, they’d vote Labour, wouldn’t they?).
    Also, the assumption that the LibDems will lose votes if they fail to support Gordon Brown or David Cameron ignores the fact that millions of people are about to vote LibDem precisely because they do not want to support either of them, so they are hardly likely to pull away from the LibDems for doing what they have promised all along: sticking to their guns. Some would, of course, just as others may join them: these are the strange ways of ballot-box politics. It may well be that a second election would substantially increase the LibDem vote, rather than decrease it, because the electorate could just as well be disillusioned with the inability – or obstinate unwillingness – of the two late twentieth-century government parties to “get real” and try to get to grips with the country as it really is, setting parliamentary agendas dated 2010 instead of 1910, as they seem to insist on wanting to do right now.
    Of course I agree with you that the media could be relied on to do their utmost to distort the country’s real needs, but it does seem to me that some, at least, are beginning to question the reliability of what they read in the newspapers or see on the TV. At last.

    Brian writes: Thank you once again, Pete. On the question whether the LibDems’ likely share of the national vote entitles them to be invited to take part in a formal coalition with several seats in the Cabinet, I think we are agreed that this might not be what they want: they might well prefer the greater freedom to criticise and to hold somehwat different positions on current issues which they would enjoy if outside the government but supporting it ad hoc and conditionally under a formal or informal pact. If their leaders are part of the government, running government departments and participating in Cabinet decisions, they will be bound by the doctrine of collective government responsibility, which will greatly limit their freedom of manoeuvre. They may also prefer not to incur the odium they might earn by being seen to sit down at the Cabinet table with the widely unpopular Gordon Brown: and going into a coalition with him would look even more provocatively like propping up and perpetuating an unpopular Labour government which on some criteria would be seen as having lost the election, even if it wins more seats than any other party. And not least, a semi-informal pact would not require the internal party formalities of meetings of the party executive and/or a special LibDem conference that would be required for Clegg to enter a formal coalition.

    Similarly, I’m not convinced that the Labour government would prefer a formal coalition with the LibDems to a less formal alliance or understanding with them. Reaching quick and clear-cut decisions would be more complicated if a group of LibDem Cabinet ministers had to be persuaded to acquiesce in them over every issue that might arise, and there could be considerable reluctance to hand over to them three or four (or even more) key departments of state: the current Labour ministers of those departments might not be overjoyed at having to step down from them to make way for a LibDem. Sections of the Labour Party in the country (what’s left of it) might also regard the acceptance of the LibDems into a predominantly Labour administration as a form of surrender, even betrayal. So both sides might well prefer a pact to a coalition.

    I don’t however agree with you about the effects on the standing of the LibDems if they were to deny their support in quick succession first to Labour and then to the Conservatives, thus almost certainly precipitating another election very soon after tomorrow’s. This might (as you say) give some satisfaction to the purists in the Liberal Democratic Party but I think it would arouse considerable anger everywhere else. The LibDems would not be able to avoid the charge of having made it impossible for anyone to govern the country, and this at a moment of grave crisis when firm and resolute government is desperately needed. Such a charge could not be made against either Labour or the Tories, both of which would have been only too ready to carry on the Queen’s government (if you’ll pardon the expression) had they not been prevented from doing so by LibDem obstinacy. History, or at any rate the conventional wisdom, and common sense, show too that the electorate doesn’t like being forced to go through another election campaign all over again so soon after the last one, when a little flexibility and willingness to compromise on the part of the LibDems would have made a second election unnecessary. It’s a fair bet that in such circumstances the electorate would punish the LibDems and that their share of the vote would drop like a bomb.

    For these reasons I don’t believe that if the LibDems were to vote to defeat the existing Labour government’s programme in the Queen’s Speech, they would then realistically have the option of voting down the Conservative government that would then take its place. They would be stuck with a Cameron government for at least a year and possibly longer, probably until Cameron himself judged that the moment had come when he could expect to win an overall majority in a fresh election and thereupon asked for a dissolution (which would undoubtedly be granted). Thus the LibDems would find themselves forced to acquiesce, perhaps for years, in a Tory government with which they would have no influence whatever and no credible leverage, as well as having to prop up a Tory government adamantly opposed to any change in the electoral system. In other words, if Brown can hang on for long enough to submit a LibDem-friendly Queen’s Speech to the house of commons, the LibDems will have no realistic option but to ensure that it gets the support of the majority of members of the house of commons, thus ensuring the continuation of a Brown Labour government. To do anything else would be LibDem suicide. They would have only one shot in their locker, and if they fired it, that would be the end of them.

  3. AnneJGP says:

    Brian, you paint the picture of an incumbent PM who is hoping to continue in office by enlisting the support of another party. What you suggest is hardly conciliatory – a statement of what you’re going to do, backed up by a threat. I’m sorry to say it seems entirely in accordance with what I have heard about Mr Brown’s methods.

    If another party’s support is needed, I would much prefer the PM to engage respectfully with the Lib Dems to negotiate a mutually satisfactory platform for governing. If respect is lacking at the very outset, what hope is there for the future relationship?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Anne. Perhaps you are reading too much into my post: my fault if so. I have no problems with a conciliatory approach by Labour to the LibDems, based on mutual (but not one-sided) respect and a genuine effort to map out common ground as a basis for a government programme enjoying the support of all the main centre-left parties (which will between them almost certainly command the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons). Indeed this is the election outcome I profoundly hope for. I deliberately wrote my imaginary script for a Labour communication to the LibDems after the election produces a hung parliament (if it does!) in the form of a statement of intentions rather than a request for the launch of negotiations for several reasons.

    First, I wanted to demonstrate that in this situation the Labour government will not be the demandeur, begging the LibDems for favours. Still being in office, and entitled to put forward to parliament a programme in the Queen’s Speech carefully crafted so as to be likely to win the support of the majority of MPs, Labour has the initiative and LibDem options are rather limited. They can make demands and lay down conditions if they like, but if these are ignored by the governing party, they still face the same decision: shall they defeat a government programme that gives them much of what they have been campaigning for? If they vote against it, or even if they abstain, they will be effectively obliged to sustain in office, for a considerable time, a Tory government whose policies give them nothing at all.

    Secondly, I wanted to avoid the implication that at the moment when it’s clear there’s a hung parliament, “negotiations” must automatically start, between the LibDems and the Tories and between the LibDems and Labour, with the LibDems effectively auctioning their favours to the highest bidder. This would imply that the Tories and Labour have an equal chance to buy LibDem support by offering the most and biggest policy concessions. But the Tories will have no opportunity to submit their government programme for parliamentary support unless Labour has done so beforehand and has been defeated on the floor of the House. The expectation must be that the first decision facing the LibDems will be whether to vote for or against the incumbent Labour government’s Queen’s Speech; there’ll be no way for the Tories to get theirs in first, unless of course the LibDems declare in advance that they are firmly committed to supporting a Tory government. And why on earth would they do that?

    Thirdly, I wanted to show that even without bargaining and horse-trading between LibDems and Labour, there’s a very large area of potentially common ground between the two parties: all the items I included in my hypothetical communication to the LibDems would enjoy massive support among Labour Party members and supporters, even though some would require changes in current Labour government policy: and all would conform closely with LibDem policies in their manifesto. In combination they would add up to a progressive reformist programme for a centre-left government supported by both the main centre-left parties which together will have won a majority of the votes cast and the seats won in the election.

  4. Richard T says:

    There is one area where those who are speculating about the plausibility of Cameron’s supposed intention to take over as a minority government, should he not get enough seats to form a majority, might usefully explore.  This how he will be able to manage the Tory party.  As far as I can understand, he will be putting himself in the same position as John Major found himself towards the end of his term namely he will be dependent on balancing the extremes of Tory factionalism to stay afloat.  Better that than delivering himself to the DUP you might think but at least the DUP can be reasoned with as theri interest will be purely mercenary.  Presumably there will be a price to be paid to the foaming mouthed europhobes, the Countryside Alliance fellow travellers and the rest.  On that basis, he might see some form of linkage with the Lib Dems in a different light.
    Having said that of course, he does need to reflect on how as Prime Minister he might manage in Northern Ireland if his best friends in UCUNF (Ithink I’ve got it right) and his putautive allies in the DUP start playing orange games in the Northern Irish Executive.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Richard. The Northern Ireland factor is indeed a wild card. It seems to me to represent a serious misjudgement for any would-be prime minister to get into an alliance relationship with any of the NI parties, since to do so risks disqualifying him from acting as an impartial arbiter and peace-maker next time there’s another desperate constitutional or political crisis in Belfast. Unfortunately Cameron has already sold this pass with his alliance with the Ulster Unionists (I don’t see ‘UCUNF’ taking off, somehow) and if he woos the DUP as well he will make matters even worse, especially with UCUNF and the DUP being at each other’s throats! But he’s desperate for power and office and if necessary I guess he’ll take support from wherever he can.

  5. Pete Kercher says:

    Desperate for power and willing to take support from wherever he can… extremist fringes… foaming mouths… yes, I knew it rang a bell: that was the extremely uncomfortable many-headed hydra that poor Romano Prodi had to ride, until the heads turned on one another so completely as to allow Berlusconi to sweep back into power. In that case, it was a true motley crew of a coalition, the worst nightmare of Britain’s single party rule supporters… and yet the pcture painted here is of the motley crew existing within one of those so-called single parties that claim to be the safe remedy for all Britain’s ills, as oposed to those awful continental coalitions… (and let’s face it, it’s the fact that the continentals do it that makes it all so, how shall I say, un-British? Can’t start learning from that unreliable lot, now can we?)

    Is it not, then, the case that the Emperor may not actually be wearing any clothes at all?

    Flippancy (or is it?) aside, I’ll be watching as closely as I can while chairing conferences etc. in Belgrade!

    Brian writes: Thanks, Pete. The fact that our bigger parties are all coalitions of widely disparate groups is a useful reminder. Personally I fear that PR in Britain (which now begins to look inevitable at some stage) will lead to the fragmentation of the main parties, the representation in parliament of some malodorous extremists of left and mainly right, and a lot of unprincipled horse-trading after each election more on Israeli or Italian lines than on German or Swedish. I can also see multi-party coalition governments being held to ransom by their extremist fringe coalition partners (Israel again). The system also fatally disguises the essentially binary nature of politics: in the end you have to put cotton wool in your ears and a clothes-peg on your nose and decide whether you’re closer to the left or to the right, and vote accordingly. Under our present system communities of varying types and sizes send their elected man or woman — sorry, Gillian, ‘lady’ — to Westminster to sit on an electoral college that chooses the government. Most of the time it doesn’t work too badly. Now and then it comes up with a complicated and superficially unfair (actually just anomalous) result which sends everyone into a paroxysm of confusion and indignation. PR would do that every time. I suppose we’ll have to get used to it.

    Enjoy being a chair in Belgrade. Let’s hope NATO won’t take it into its collective head to bomb the place again while you’re there. Look out for grateful statues of Mr Tony, the bombers’ cheer-leader.

  6. Pete Kercher says:

    Thanks Brian, I certainly hope that the days when Europeans and their allies bomb other Europeans are over. The driving force of our organisation in Belgrade is a fantastic woman who was visiting a flat in Western Belgrade, towards the airport, with an estate agent one day. NATO suddenly attacked (no early warning, no information for civilians…), the building was hit (so much for “accurate” bombing: it’s some ten km from the airport and nowhere near any potential targets). The lights went out, she ran in the dark and mistook a blown-out window for a door… she was on the tenth floor. She woke up in hospital and has been paraplegic ever since. That’s the reality of war, even now, even in Europe, even among the civilians who were bombed by NATO.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this moving account, Pete. It’s galling that Blair and his accomplices are allowed to continue to misrepresent the NATO aggression against Yugoslavia (for which Blair was the principal cheer-leader) as a necessary response to the internal conflict in Kosovo and as one whose cost in lives and suffering was somehow justified by its success in ending Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. In fact the bombing was illegal, unnecessary, botched and entirely unsuccessful. It aggravated and accelerated the ethnic cleansing, it caused the exodus of penniless refugees from Kosovo (which began only after the bombing had started), and it utterly failed to end the conflict in Kosovo or to replace the Serbian administration of its Kosovo province by an international administration. (That was achieved by American, Russian and Finnish diplomacy which negotiated a settlement whose first requirement was an end to the NATO bombing.) It didn’t even achieve regime change in Serbia or Yugoslavia. And, like the aggression against Iraq three years later, it was sold to the public and the world on a fraudulent prospectus. Your Belgrade paraplegic lady has had her life ruined for nothing.