Public affairs professionals will have heard the question above many times in recent weeks as friends, family and clients alike seek to understand what an election that seems like it will have no winner means for the United Kingdom.
Lord O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary who coordinated the 2010 coalition talks, certainly has some expertise in this area. He has suggested that the two negotiations last time around were a “piece of cake” compared to what is likely to come ahead, with formerly fringe parties like the SNP, DUP and perhaps UKIP now seeking to act as kingmakers. Positioning seems to be the name of the game, with O’Donnell drolly stating that “there is quite a lot of public foreplay…we shall see what is consummated in the weeks ahead.”
Understand the rules, playing the game
A rule book for post-election horse trading does exist; ‘The Cabinet Manual’ was drafted by O’Donnell in the months before the 2010 election and has subsequently been revised.
In European countries where coalition governments are common, the ‘plurality principle’ is generally adopted. Under this, the largest parliamentary party is offered the first chance to form a government. If this proves unsuccessful the second is offered the opportunity to do so, and so on. The Cabinet Manual, however, states that the parliamentary parties should “seek to determine and communicate clearly to the sovereign…who is best placed to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons” and form a new government.
The obvious democratic logic of the plurality principle can theoretically be thrown out of the window, in favour of ambiguity and horse trading. While Ed Miliband has repeatedly ruled out a coalition with the SNP, he may well see collaboration with them as the only route to Number 10. Such a policy is high-risk and given Miliband’s historic caution and public pronouncements seems unlikely.
A minority government led by David Cameron, with few powerful allies amongst the other parties, would struggle to pass a Queen’s Speech and would likely be dissolved. This could work in the Tories favour. A new leader, perhaps the popular Boris Johnson, may be able to persuade the country that it needs a Tory government to prevent the Scottish nationalists gaining a foothold. Again, this is a risky strategy. Wavering voters in Scotland could switch from the SNP to Labour: potentially giving Miliband enough seats to win an outright majority.
Where the Lib Dems stand in all this is clear: they will look to stay in government whatever the outcome. The price Labour would demand in any arrangement is likely to be the head of Nick Clegg, while the Tories are likely to ask them to support them on an EU referendum in 2017. Neither option is particularly palatable, and could require a degree of soul searching amongst MPs and activists alike. It’s worth remembering that an agreement has to be approved by the activist base.
With no written constitution, governments are beholden to the past. Ed Miliband’s team will no doubt be looking to the 1923 election results. In this instance the Tories, under Stanley Baldwin, won 258 seats, Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party, 191 and Herbert Asquith’s Liberals 158. Unable to form a viable minority, Baldwin relinquished control enabling MacDonald to become Labour’s first Prime Minister, in concert with the Liberals. However, it is worth remembering that this coalition lasted a matter of months, with the Tories winning an outright majority in 1924. Labour lost 40 seats as voters looked for stability. In a snap election, this would be an obvious risk.
O’Donnell recently said that the purpose of his work was to “get to a stable, effective government”, however, with factionalism a hallmark of modern politics, stability looks to be in short supply. It may be that precedents go out of the window as politicians scramble for power. With no one party able to form a majority, a minority government fraught with difficulty awaits, and perhaps even another election within a year.
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