Tag Archives: hung parliament

Should Clegg cuddle up with Gordon Brown?

Via Twitter, Tom Griffin alerts me to an article by Philip Stevens claiming that by ruling out supporting Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg has thrown away his negotiating position for forming a reforming coalition government with the Labour Party. There are only two problems with this article: Stevens clearly has no idea how the UK constitution (such as it is) works, and clearly has not listened to anything Nick Clegg has actually said on the subject.

Before I continue this article, a caveat. It is speculates what might happen if we find ourselves in a hung parliament situation on 7 May. I’m not predicting this will happen; I have no idea what will happen. What I am seeking to clarify are what the Lib Dems’ options actually are in such a situation.

In terms of the latter, Clegg has been quite clear: the party with the biggest mandate should have the first chance to form a government. Contrary to any cheese-induced dreams Stevens may have had recently, he has explicitly not stated that the Lib Dems would automatically support the party with the biggest mandate, nor has he defined “biggest mandate”. The latter is crucial because even now we have no idea if the party with the most seats in the Commons will have the largest share of the vote. Defining “mandate” will inevitably be a judgement call based on numerous factors.

Secondly, he appears to be under the impression that if Brown is ousted, then the Queen will automatically approach Cameron to form a government and that if Cameron is defeated then a General Election will automatically be called. Both these assertions are completely incorrect. Before writing his article, Stevens should have spent a few minutes studying the briefing note the Cabinet Office prepared back in February which explains exactly what will happen (pdf). It states that:

When a Government or Prime Minister resigns it is for the Monarch to invite the person whom it appears is most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government. However it is the responsibility of those involved in the political process – and in particular the parties represented in Parliament – to seek to determine and communicate clearly who that person should be. These are the principles that underpin the appointment of a Prime Minister and formation of a government in all circumstances.

Where a range of different administrations could potentially be formed, the expectation is that discussions will take place between political parties on who should form the next Government.

What this means is that if Cameron cannot form a majority without the Lib Dems’ help, and is not prepared to make some pretty major concessions to the Lib Dems (if you aren’t aware already, those demands are the four key Lib Dem manifesto commitments for a fairer tax system, education, a fair and green economy and a fairer politics), then as long as Labour are prepared to make such concessions there is no reason at all for the Queen to even ask Cameron to form a government*. Furthermore, the Queen is obliged to listen to the Liberal Democrats (and others, for that matter) before making a decision, not merely talk to the main two parties. And even if Cameron does get as far as a Queens’ Speech, which falls, fresh elections will not be automatic:

A Prime Minister may request that the Monarch dissolves Parliament and hold a further election. The Monarch is not bound to accept such a request, especially when such a request is made soon after a previous dissolution. In those circumstances, the Monarch would normally wish the parties to ascertain that there was no potential government that could command the confidence of the House of Commons before granting a dissolution.

Tom raises the spectre of 1974 when the Queen ordered fresh elections despite the reassurances of Harold Wilson that he could form a government. But one of the few things we do know is that 2010 will not lead to a repeat of the ’74 parliament whereby a coalition government combining the Liberals and either the Conservatives or Labour was not really viable. The Liberals had 14 MPs and no negotiating position – they didn’t have enough people to even have a significant Cabinet presence. In 2010 by contract, the Lib Dems could have anything between 60 and 120 MPs and thus hold a very decisive balance of power. If the Queen were to call fresh elections despite Labour and the Lib Dems requesting to form a coalition government with a clear majority, the only thing she would achieve would be to make her own future an election issue.

The question boils down then, not to what Clegg would do but how the Labour Party will respond. How quickly will they be able to recover from the affront that Clegg won’t prop up Brown (a leader who, it has been clear from the last couple of years, most of them regret coronating in the first place) and start looking at alternatives? Or would they rather have a Tory administration just to spite the Lib Dems? That certainly appears to be Gordon Brown’s own current position (I was amused to read John Harris describe Brown adopting a scorched earth policy – that’s exactly how I had described it five minutes before reading his article). My prediction is that once the dust has settled, cooler Labour heads will prevail and they will start talking.

If they think they can still brass neck it and blackmail the Lib Dems into backing them, they need to remember three things. Firstly, any attempt to prop up Gordon Brown would be seen by the public as an utter betrayal of Clegg’s rallying call for real change – he would be finished. Secondly, assuming the Tories win the most seats (and Labour would have to move mountains to change this at this stage), the Lib Dems don’t need to actually vote for a Cameron administration but merely abstain (and such a Cameron government would still be hamstrung by having to negotiate everything with Parliament). And third, we’ve been waiting a lot longer for this moment than Labour has, and have a lot less to lose.

So spare us the threats and the “our way or the highway” posturing. That way lies oblivion. And Mr Stevens, perhaps you ought to do a bit more research in future?

* This is a fact that Cameron himself may like to appraise himself of, if the report in the Telegraph of Cameron ruling out talks with the Lib Dems are true. If that’s the case Dave, you can kiss the keys to Number 10 goodbye.

EXPOSED: The Tories’ secret plan to prevent hung parliaments

Much has been made in the media this weekend of the Tories’ secret plan to increase VAT immediately after the election, if they win outright on Thursday. But it is becoming increasingly clear that they have another secret plan they aren’t telling anybody about: a plan to prevent future hung parliaments.

Right or wrong (and all the facts show they are dangerously wrong), one thing that the Tories have made perfectly clear in this election is that they are fundamentally opposed to having to share power with anyone. This of course makes a complete nonsense of the title of their manifesto (“an invitation to join the government of Britain” – have you noticed they are now emphasing not our place in government, but our status as mere contractors with government?), but that’s by the by.

Howver, there are two problems they have. The first one is the dirty little secret that WE ALREADY HAVE a hung parliament, and have had one for years. The House of Lords has been hung since the early noughties. Tory policy is now to “seek consensus” on creating a “substantially elected House of Lords” (presumably under their policy the appointed element will be to ensure the House has a single party majority but they are keeping conspicuously quiet about that) but since they are the only ones who disagree with the consensus that it should be elected using a proportional system, that won’t be achieved any time soon. It is well understood that if the Tories win an outright majority on Thursday, then Lords reform is dead as an issue for the next five years.

That leaves “Dave” with the power to appoint life peers on a whim, and the commitment to prevent hung parliaments. The current House of Lords has 704 members, 188 of whom are Tories. To form a majority and prevent a hung parliament, Cameron’s oft-repeated aim, he will need to appoint at least 300 Tories to the red leather benches.

Where will these 300 people come from? One can assume that a large tranche will be failed Commons candidates, meaning that even if you manage to vote down your local Tory candidate, they will be sitting in the legislature in a matter of weeks. We can also safely assume that they will come from the ranks of the businessmen and millionaires who have been bankrolling their campaign, including this delightful bunch of evangelical Christians.

This hasn’t come from nowhere. Back in October, the Times was openly speculating on the Tories appointing dozens of peers if they won the election before, presumably, such talk got stamped on by Andy Coulson and his close links with News International. But it is clear from the last few weeks that the Tories secret plan goes much, much further than even this.

But believe it or not, it actually gets worse. The biggest problem with the Tories’ war against hung parliaments is that with each election the chances of one forming increases as the country embraces multi-party politics. In 1951, 96.6% of voters supported one of the two main parties. In 2005, that figure was as low as 67.6%. The thing about FPTP is that if the vote share is evenly spread amongst 3 or 4 parties it ceases to return mostly single party majorities and starts becoming scarily random. Fundamentally, we remain stuck in hung parliament territory.

The Tories will be looking at Canada at the moment, which has had three hung parliaments in six years, and realising that even if that doesn’t happen here in 2010, we are heading in that direction. To prevent this, Cameron cannot rely on argument alone, he will have to change the system itself.

That means adopting a similar system to the ones they operate in those great bastions of economic and political stability Greece and Italy whereby the party which wins the largest share of the vote is given a bonus number of seats to ensure that it almost always wins an outright majority. Those bonus MPs would have no constituency and would be only answerable to the party itself. This is what is known as “strong government”.

Think this is fantasy? The Tory rhetoric over the past couple of weeks makes it clear that they will do everything in their power to prevent hung parliaments and having to share power with anyone. Therefore it is inevitable that they will have to adopt both these measures. While I am sure they will claim they have “no plans” to do either of these things, that is what they said about raising VAT.

Fundamentally, can you believe a word any of them say? We need to prevent all this by denying them a victory on Thursday. The polls this Sunday are quite consistent: while Lib Dem support is wavering slightly, we are still in a position to win the biggest share of the vote if the young people who have flocked to us over the last few days turn out rather than staying at home. They aren’t switching to either Labour or the Tories. So let’s get out there and enthuse them.

The Lib Dems will be nobodies’ patsies

With Labour activists and Guardianistas wobbling over the startling revelation that if they don’t win the election, the Lib Dems won’t win it for them, I’ve written a short article on Comment is Free explaining why that doesn’t mean the Lib Dems are about to jump in bed with the Tories and that Labour needs to get real:

If Labour is slowly waking up to the fact that the Lib Dems will be nobody’s patsies, that’s great. I like to think that Labour can bring itself back from the brink over the next 10 days and will stop arguing itself into political oblivion. As their newly exhumed supporter Elvis says, it’s now or never. What they have to wake up to, however, is the fact that there are a lot more possible scenarios out there than either a Cameron or a Brown-led government. Every time they oversimplify and insist that a Lib Dem vote is a vote for Cameron, they merely discredit themselves by mirroring the Tories who are insisting that the Lib Dems are a proxy for Brown.

Read the full article here.

Meanwhile, as if on cue, the Tories have decided to make this whole election a referendum on hung parliaments. Their new PEB, is unique outside of BNP broadcasts in that pretty much every sentence in it is the opposite of the truth. It could have come straight from Bizarro World or (if you have more literary pretensions) Airstrip One. New Tories, Newspeak!

I’m not sure they are necessarily wise to do this, since not only are hung parliaments popular but their arguments against them are patronising in the extreme. But while people are showing no signs of submitting to such scare tactics yet, we need to redouble our efforts to reassure them.

One thing is for sure: the Tories can no longer claim to be about change in this election, as if that argument ever had any resonance in the first place.