What if Gordon doesn’t resign on 7 May?
The inimitable Guido Fawkes, in a post-Clegg blog post today, describes an election result scenario in which Labour, despite having won a smaller percentage of the national vote than either the Tories or the LibDems, still emerges with a few more seats in the House of Commons than any other single party, although well short of an overall majority. Guido imagines that after a day of talks between David Cameron and Nick Clegg, a message goes to the Palace that the Tories and LibDems have agreed to form a ‘Change Coalition’ government which will command an overall majority in the House; it will be led by Cameron (since the Tories have more Commons seats than the LibDems) and a number of LibDems will hold Cabinet posts in it, including, naturally, Clegg and Vincent Cable. The Queen accordingly invites Cameron and Clegg to the Palace and invites them to form a Change Coalition government.
All nice and plausible so far? A LibDem decision to join the Tories in a coalition in the circumstances imagined by Guido would be consistent with Clegg’s repeated pledge to “let the people decide” which of the bigger parties he should agree to support in a hung parliament, if, as in Guido’s scenario, the Tories had won a bigger share of the national vote than Labour. But there would remain the problem of Labour, with a smaller share of the votes, having just a few more parliamentary seats than the Conservatives. And under our constitution, it’s the seats that count when it comes to the right to have the first go at forming a government, as several clear precedents demonstrate. I have accordingly posted the following awkward-squad Comment on Guido’s post:
Comment no. 108: Brian Barder says: April 18, 2010 at 11:21 am
Pardon me for pointing it out, but there’s surely a gaping hole in this scenario. There is no need for Gordon Brown, as leader of the biggest single party in the house of commons, to resign as prime minister, and until he does, there is no vacancy at No. 10 that the Queen is at liberty to fill by inviting Cameron to form a coalition government with the LibDems. Brown would be free to form a minority government — perhaps inviting the LibDems to hold three or four Cabinet posts including Cable as Chancellor — and, when he has done so, to meet the House for the debate on the Queen’s Speech (written of course by Brown). The Queen’s Speech is full of LibDem-friendly goodies, including a mild form of PR. A frantic Dave Cameron pleads with the LibDems to come over to him and, together with the Tories, defeat Brown in the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Nick Clegg is tempted but Chris Huhne and Cable flatly refuse and make it clear that they are happier with Labour now that Labour is promising more concessions to their point of view than the Tories. The LibDems vote with Brown to defeat a Tory ‘no confidence’ motion and the newly vamped Brown government settles down to resume governing the country. The Queen is spared the agony of having to make difficult, loaded decisions. Everyone is happy — except the Tories. Oh, dear. How sad for the Tories.
Actually, despite the Clegg epiphany on Thursday night, and the hysterical reactions to it by the opinion polls ever since, my money is still on an overall Tory majority on 6 May, meaning a single-party Tory majority government and no need for any concessions to the LibDems. But I admit that my confidence in this forecast has been badly shaken by the post-Clegg polls, and also by Cameron’s distinctly below-par performance in the first debate.
Just suppose that:
- Clegg continues to do well enough in the next two debates to enable the LibDems to hold on to the seats which the Tories need to win from them if they are to form a majority government, or even to overtake Labour in the number of seats won:
- Gordon Brown repeats his well-informed, sober, unflashy, substantial performance in the two remaining debates, especially in the third debate on the economy, and confirms the suspicion aroused by the first debate that he is actually a much more solid and reliable prospect as prime minister than Cameron: and
- the Tories’ attacks on Clegg and LibDem policies, prompted by the Clegg epiphany in the first debate, backfire badly with the swing voters and especially with younger voters, while Labour shrewdly continues its policy of highlighting its natural affinities with the LibDems and the glaring defects in the Tories’ platform, also offering some tasty bonbons to the LibDems (electoral ‘reform’, ditching Trident replacement and ID cards?):
— if all those possibilities materialise, the election outcome imagined by Guido Fawkes becomes a real possibility. And if that happens, the consequences that might flow from it, as described in my comment on his post quoted above, look to me a whole lot more plausible than Guido’s Tory-LibDem Change Coalition. Note that something like my scenario remains perfectly possible even if, as I would expect, Clegg and Cable were to decline Brown’s offer of seats in his new Cabinet, preferring instead to give a conditional promise of cautious support for a Brown minority government, with the emphasis on the ‘conditional’.
Perhaps all is not yet lost, after all?
Epiphany: “A revelatory manifestation of a divine being” — http://www.thefreedictionary.com/
The coming weeks could certainly be interesting for making new conventional precedent in Westminster.
In modern democracies, whether we like it or not, single-party governments are not only a major exception to the rule, but quite frankly something of a nineteenth-century anachromism. They survive largely only in the UK and the USA… with a struggle. Nobody in mainland Europe (I use the term intentionally, as the UK is a part of the continent, after all) would bat an eyelid at the prospect of a coalition, which is usually believed to hold more hope of representing a larger proportion of the public. I suspect that the City’s bland (or downright sleepy?) reaction to the prospect is not so much because it does not believe that the Parliament will be hung, but because the City, as is so often the case, is rather ahead of political debate in the UK, because it works with the real world and knows how it functions, so has long come to terms with the prospect of coalition government as a guarantee of stability and is not in the least fazed.
Of course, the kind of coalition I mean – and the kind that you would get from a Lib-Lab or a Lib-Con – would be fundamentally stable, if based on a correct procedure of coalition talks, as usually conducted in Germany. I know that British politicians are not very versed in co-operation of this kind, but I’m sure they can learn quickly enough.
Between the lines, you will have understood that I consider there to be ample space for good stable coalition government in the UK without going anywhere near the extremes of the hopelessly unstable governments of the French Fourth Republic, or of Prodi’s last pitiful effort here in Italy: these are always held up as the inevitable fate of coalition governments by those in the UK who have always wanted single-party government for its own sake, while studiously ignoring the stability enjoyed by Germany’s governments since 1949. That stability comes from the constitutional convention of the constructive vote of no-confidence, whereby an existing coalition can only be voted out of office by a new coalition prepared to take power, as happened on the one occasion since 1949 when the German government underwent a bouleversement des alliances, when the FDP deserted the SPD and teamed up with the CDU, back in the 1980s. Government continued stably. I believe the UK would do well to consider such a construct when the time comes to engage in coalition government, as it may well in three weeks’ time.
By the way, Prodi’s instability was due to Italy’s rather silly attempt to graft a bipolar methods onto a country that simply has more than one axis (left-right, catholic-secular, north-south, intellectual-populist), so has always been multiparty. Instead of bringing forces together in stable coalitions, it encourages the artificial collection of rag-tag groups, including the extremes and the lunatic fringes, on either side of an imagined divide. With obvious and easily predictable consequences of instablity.
I’m a great believer in the importance of semantics: consider the different meaning that we attribute instinctively to the concepts of a hung parliament (sounds bad, unstable, rickety) and that of coalition government (which to most Europeans sounds like stable government that tends to exclude extremes and gravitates to the middle ground), yet in fact the latter is the inevitable consequence of the former. If UK politoligists were to talk less about hung parliaments, the bogeyman might start to fade into his due insignificance.
Avoiding the extremes and providing stability in government is also a consequence of doing away with the time-honoured but quaintly outdated idea that everything is either black or white: it served the British Parliament well enough in the eighteenth century, but we all know that it is only an accident of interior design: had the Commons met in a room like that chamber of the Lords, seated around three sides of a room, instead of in serried rows on the two sides of St. Stephen’s Chapel, there is every chance that British Parliamentarianism would have developed on the hemicycle model instead of the confrontational one. The gentlemanly behaviour of the three leaders on Thursday indicates that the hemicycle mindset is already beginning to take hold, at least in the leadership: I sincerely hope that your debates never lose that fine, rather noble tone, one of readiness to collaborate for the good of the country.
Just one last comment to end a rather long post about coalitions. I know it takes time to get used to these things, so I don’t blame the British pundits for being so backward in their thinking, but it is nevertheless quite surprising to find that nobody seems to have even considered the hypothesis of a grand coalition: Lab-Con in principle should have at least as much going for it as Lib-Lab or Lib-Con. Britain needs to shake off those confrontationist presumptions of enmity: when the Berlin Wall came down, the last leftovers of outdated political rhetoric died with it (though some politicians are slow to notice). What the public wants now is a bit less high-flown theory and a bit more working together to solve some major everyday problems. The fact that Blair continued a great many Tory policies and called them New Labour is evidence enough, I should have thought, that the two can get along if need be, for the good of the country.
So if they start trying to push Clegg to state which one he will partner with, he would do well to remind them that a three-way battle is just that: the same rules apply to all three, including the option to coalesce with either of the other parties.
Brian writes: Many thanks for this extremely thought-provoking comment, Pete. It may well turn out, now that Mr Clegg has turned all our old assumptions upside-down, that we’re at the start of a new era of British constitutional practice and that coalition government will become the norm rather than the exception; if it does, and if that becomes generally accepted as beneficial, the main objection to Proportional Representation would fall away. Personally, I have always disliked the idea of coalition government, mainly because despite recent experience I still dream of the day when we have a radical, reforming government with a challenging programme of constitutional, social and economic reform: setting us on the path to a fully federal constitution by establishing a devolved parliament and government for England and devolving full powers over all domestic affairs to the UK’s four nations; changing the Companies Act to place an obligation on companies to act in consultation with their employees, suppliers and customers as well as their shareholders, and to act in all their interests (as well as society’s), not just in the interests of their shareholders; establishing a rule that British forces will not be sent into action overseas unless under explicit UN mandate or in defence of identifiable UK interests; moving towards making all social services universal by phasing out all means-testing; unilaterally ridding Britain of its nuclear weapons; ending all Private Finance Initiatives and similar scams; sharply increasing the top rate of income tax; and so on. I believe that if ever the time came when a party with such a programme were to be elected, it would be prevented from carrying it out if compelled to share power with a less radical coalition partner (which would always be the case under PR). But I recognise that this is all a pipe dream.
I also think that coalition governments go against the grain of British constitutional and political tradition, which is steeped in the adversarial or binary system, just as our justice system is. Coalitions spell endless compromises, which blur governments’ accountability for carrying out their election promises. As for a German-style Grand Coalition comprising a joint Labour-Conservative partnership, this is open to the obvious objection that it’s liable to abolish an effective parliamentary opposition able and willing to hold the government to account and to expose its abuses. There’s also the objection that the fundamental values and principles of a party of the left are simply not compatible with those of a party of the right — or at any rate they shouldn’t be. Tories favour maximum tax cuts, minimum expenditure on social services, generous incentives for the private sector in preference to the public sector, the “small state”. A genuine party of the left, if we had one, would give priority to the protection of the poorest and most vulnerable in society by collective state action, taking active measures to minimise inequality and to curb the excesses of market capitalism, devolving power to the lowest local levels consistent with the maintenance of basic standards, emphasising individual and collective rights over “responsibilities”, stressing rehabilitation over punishment in penal policy, and so forth. The attempt to reach a compromise over such starkly different and conflicting values could only result in muddle, ad hockery and lack of purpose. (You might of course say that that’s what we’ve got anyway.)
Still, coalitions are being made to work after a fashion in the devolved parliaments and governments of Wales and Northern Ireland, so perhaps we’ll have to give it a go at Westminster too. On the whole, though, the SNP’s experience in Scotland of successful minority government in a hung parliament, but without any formal or even informal coalition, seems to me the likeliest and least objectionable model if a hung parliament results from the election on 6 May. Labour supporters who are tempted by the thought of coalitions should study the sad fate of their party under Ramsay MacDonald.
If there is a hung parliament then there are a number of option which are well discussed by our fellow blogger Head of Legal.
Personally, I have the view that the leader of the party with the most seats in the Commons would be invited to form a government.
Of course, our first past the post system is basically undemocratic but how to reform it? That’s the difficult question to answer.
Brian writes: Thank you. I much enjoyed your podcast, in which I thought your discussion of hung parliaments covered the ground extremely well — stressing, correctly, that by convention the person invited by the Queen to try to form a government is the person who seems to her likeliest to command the confidence of a majority of members of the House of Commons. It should just be pointed out, though, that (as you say in the podcast) after an election it’s open to the incumbent prime minister, even if his or her party fails to gain a majority of seats in the House of Commons, and even if his/her party is not the biggest single party in the House, to continue to govern and to see if he/she can secure a majority for the government in the vote on the government’s programme in the Queen’s Speech and/or in a vote of confidence. The incumbent prime minister doesn’t need to be re-invited by the Queen after an election to try to form a government, and the Queen is in no position to ask anyone else to try to form a government until and unless the existing prime minister resigns (which requires all the members of his government to resign too). It’s also worth remembering that the Queen is not obliged to accept a request by her prime minister for a dissolution and fresh elections, if the Queen thinks that there’s someone else who might be able to form a government that would command the confidence of a majority of MPs.
As to our First Past the Post electoral system for the House of Commons, we can all agree that it has its defects as well as its benefits; but so do all other electoral systems. PR in UK circumstances would mean that all elections would result in hung parliaments and either coalition or minority governments. Personally I think that’s more objectionable than anything that comes with First Past the Post. YMMV!
Hopefully that link will work !
Brian writes: Thank you. I have made the link in your earlier comment (above) work, too. By the way, in my response to your earlier comment I assumed that you were one of the speakers in the podcast: please forgive me if that’s not the case.
Just a quick note, Brian: your wish list may be a bit idealistic in today’s pragmatic world, but I am fascinated to find that it reads very much as though it had come out of the first manifesto of the European Federation of Liberal and Radical Youth. I should know…. as I wrote it in the summer of 1977!
Brian writes: Thanks once again, Pete. I’m flattered, although neither Liberal (with a capital L, anyway) nor, alas, a Youth.
Thanks Brian for your responses. The Head of Legal blog is that of Carl Gardner, barrister and formerly a government lawyer. He was discussing a number of issues with CharonQC. I found the podcast very good on the role of Her Majesty in these matters and I am sure that what he says was legally right.
My own blog is “Law and Lawyers” – click on Obiter J in this post. Thanks again.
There is another joker in this pack. A Labour minority government supported by the Lib Dems would probably result in the Tories having a majority in England. Would the Lib Dems want to be seen to be marching their Scottish members through the lobbies with great regularity passing laws for England opposed by the majority of English members? The might, but it is a calculation they would need to make and would probably (in my view wisely) prefer to avoid it if possible: although if they are keen on seeing an entirely revised constitution with a new Constitutional Convention, as they say they are, they might view it as a way of putting some heat up Labour’s backside.
However, in my view this makes a Lib-Lab collaboration less likely in the scenario you outline.
Brian writes: Thank you, Chris. The anomaly you envisage is inherent in our half-baked, semi-federal/semi-unitary constitution. It arose in acute form, you’ll remember, when the Conservative Party under Mrs Thatcher (as she now isn’t) had comfortable majorities in the UK overall and in England specifically, but almost no representation in Scotland, which at the time was overwhelmingly Labour. Scottish resentment at being used as the guinea-pig for a trial run of the infamous poll tax was sharpened by the fact that Scottish voters had decisively rejected the Tories who now governed them. This is a commonplace situation in federations proper: California, one of the biggest and politically weightiest states in the federal US, has an elected Republican administration but is governed in federal matters by a Democratic administration in Washington DC. The same thing happens often in federal Australia, indeed in virtually all federations. The reason why it seems especially objectionable in the UK is that England, alone of the four UK nations, has no national government or parliament of its own, and the parliament and government at Westminster try, mostly unsuccessfully, to function both as federal organs for the whole UK, and as the parliament and government for England. The only escape from this ludicrous anomaly will eventually be to carry devolution to its logical conclusion: a properly constituted federal UK, including a parliament and government for England (among a number of other federal consequences). Until then, the likelihood that different parts of the UK will elect MPs of different political complexions from the government and parliament at Westminster is a fact of life that all parties will have to put up with.
A minority government (as in Scotland now) and a coalition (as used to rule in Scotland) are two different things and you may be muddling them up. If Labour or Conservatives offer ministerial posts to the Lib Dems then it means a fully fledged coalition, not a minority government. Personally I think that unless there is a guarantee of a referendum on PR (not AV) Clegg won’t be tempted by a coalition, least of all one led by Gordon Brown. I think a minority government with the Lib Dems providing issue by issue support will be the most likely scenario. But if Labour come first in seats with a smaller share of the vote than the other two parties then FPTP becomes indefensible. The Conservatives are however too stupid to have grasped this. (I have written a piece for the Our Kingdom website on Tory constitutional plans which should be available later today).
Brian writes: Thanks, John. I assume that you are referring to the author of the preceding comment, not to me, when you voice the suspicion that “you” may be muddling up a minority government with a coalition. (Of course a coalition government could also be a minority government if the parties forming it don’t have an overall majority in the House of Commons, although this is unlikely if the coalition partners are two of the three biggest parties in the House; but it’s possible even then.) However as matters stand — and they may well change radically between now and 6 May — my guess is that in the event of a hung parliament, the LibDems will, as you predict, decline to go into a formal coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives, simply offering whichever of them forms a minority government the promise to vote on the merits of each issue as it arises. This will not of course provide them with a yardstick on how to vote on the Queen’s Speech or a vote of confidence, when their LibDem votes will probably determine whether the minority government survives or resigns. If they decided to bring down the government by voting against the Queen’s Speech, or voting No in a vote of confidence (in either case forcing whoever is prime minister to resign), a possible or even probable consequence would be a second election in which the LibDems, widely blamed for not letting the government have a chance to govern at least for a while, would be likely to be wiped out and the Tories returned with a clear overall majority. This could make the LibDems extremely reluctant to bring down a post-election minority government. And since however many seats the Tories have won vis-a-vis Labour, Brown is entitled to carry on as prime minister until and unless he is defeated on the Queen’s Speech or a vote of confidence, there’s a sporting chance that the LibDems will refrain from defeating him, at least for a few months.
Everyone is huffing and puffing about the sheer impossibility and immorality of Labour continuing in office if it has won fewer national votes than the Tories (and even perhaps than the LibDems) but has won more seats than either. However it’s worth remembering that there have been three elections since the second world war in which this anomalous result has occurred. In 1951 Labour, elected in 1945 in a landslide and re-elected in 1950, won more votes than the Conservatives, indeed more votes than Labour had ever won before (even in 1945) and more than it has ever won since, yet won fewer seats than the Tories, so Attlee resigned and Churchill returned as prime minister. No-one seems to have complained that this was unacceptable or immoral. The same thing happened at both the elections of 1974, this time benefiting Labour, which won more seats than the Tories despite having won very slightly fewer votes. After the first of these, Heath as incumbent prime minister tried to do a deal with the Liberals, remaining in office for four days while he haggled with Jeremy Thorpe, but when he failed, he resigned and Harold Wilson formed a minority Labour government. Eight months later Wilson asked for, and was granted, a dissolution and fresh elections, at which Labour narrowly secured an overall majority (319 seats out of 635!). Few if any complained at the time of the first 1974 election that Labour, as the biggest single party, occupied No. 10 Downing Street despite having won fewer votes than the Conservatives: and the narrow overall majority of Commons seats won by Labour eight months later was not regarded as invalid even though once again the Conservatives had actually won more votes.
Perhaps all this merits a new blog post! Watch this space.
PS: My hunch remains that on 6 May the Conservatives will be elected with an overall majority in the Commons, although in the present state of the polls it’s obviously impossible to hold that view with a huge amount of confidence, and if Cameron continues to perform as woefully as he has recently been doing, all bets must be off.
Yes, well Clegg talks the talk about a Lib/Con coalition, but IMHO it will never happen. Why? His party will not wear it. Look at the precedent. In 1974 Jeremy Thorpe was trying for a coalition with Heath, didn’t happen because his party would not, could not stand it. I’m not sure that much has changed in the Lib Dem heartlands (if there is such a thing) of the South West.
Brian writes: Thanks, Matt. I agree. (Please see my rather lengthy response to John Morrison, above.) It looks as if the only way for Clegg to avoid splitting his party down the middle if there’s a hung parliament will be to refrain from doing a deal with either Labour or the Tories, and to adopt the lofty stance of promising to vote ‘on the merits’. But if and when it comes to a vote of confidence, it will be extremely difficult for the LibDems to stay on the fence.
For what it’s worth, after a Spanish election with no overall majority (the usual case) the acting PM and other acting ministers, as they are scrupulously referred to during the campaign, remain in office till a new government arrangement is formed. This might be a coalition or an agreement to keep a minority government in power to enact a certain programme; such an agreement may well be made in writing and signed by the party leaders. There is a time limit for this procedure (I think it’s forty days but I’m not at all sure) and a schedule for the meeting of the new parliament, which first of all elects its Chair (Speaker) and then approves the government. This happened after the 2004 election with perfect normality despite the peculiar circumstances of the election (three days after the Madrid bombs).
Brian writes: Thanks, Peter. Interesting. I think that in the UK’s case, there would be strong resistance to a system that could envisage a delay of up to 40 days before a new government could take office after an election, if only because of London’s status as the world’s major financial centre and the hysterical fears in the world markets of possible instability and uncertainty if there’s an appreciable interval between effective British governments. Spain may be under less pressure for speed in this respect. Our 24/7 media and politicians are also of course accustomed to a new government taking office within 24 hours of the polling stations closing, and there would be a frightful hubbub if no-one knew who had won the election for weeks after voting had finished. It has become established constitutional doctrine that the Queen’s (or King’s) government must be carried on without interruption. Of course there will always be a caretaker government in place while negotiations for a new and permanent one are being conducted, but a caretaker government is in no position to take radical or controversial decisions in a sudden crisis, or even from day to day. However, if ever we go over to PR for elections to the House of Commons, no doubt we’ll have to get used to long delays in forming each new government and we may have to live with the attendant risks and penalties, as Spain and numerous other countries do. We may even have to live with them starting from next week!
It is the UK that is the exception really with the removal vans at Number 10 the day after the election, and I think that this has more to do with tradition and hysteria than logic. What if the financial markets do have to live without a government? Spain is hardly a financial pole of the world but, like other European countries it has international commitments and internal requirements to deal with. The USA takes two months for a new president to take office.
Given Clegg’s comments today that he will not prop up Brown, the scenario in this post (or your reply to GF) becomes very unlikely. If he changes his mind he will be finished. If Brown needs to resign as PM, then the rest of this scenario cannot take place.