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.