Parliament is dissolved – we’re off
The word ‘historic’ is so overused as to make me over-wrought. It has become a synonym for noteworthy. That’s life. Nevertheless this Dissolution of Parliament is historic in its true sense – since this is the first time that a UK general election and the subsequent aftermath of forming a government will no longer be bound by unwritten ‘conventions’. Until this election the Prime minister has effectively exercised the prerogative powers of the crown; determining not only the date of the election but the protocols surrounding the meeting of the next parliament. Instead for the future all Prime Ministers will act by under the aegis of statute – that is the Fixed Term Parliament Act.
So, perhaps, it might be best to start the day after the last election day.
Last time Gordon Brown faced a ‘hung’ parliament he had two powers he could choose to exercise as he was still the Prime Minister: first he could choose the meet Parliament either with a confidence vote or with his own Queen’s Speech and let the the House of Commons vote it down; secondly, as PM, in theory, he had the first bite of the coalition-forming cherry. There was recent precedent for use of both these powers – the former by Stanley Baldwin in 1924 leading to the first Labour government; and the latter, by Ted Heath in 1974 when, although a few seats less than Labour and a few popular votes more, he first tried to make a coalition with the Liberals under Jeremy Thorpe. Only when that failed did Heath resign and ask the Queen to call Harold Wilson to form a government. These procedures were important – as any PM then still held a third power – the right to ‘request’ the Queen to dissolve parliament. Therefore, whomsoever the crown asked to form a government, he or she did so with the preserved right to request a dissolution. Wilson exercised this right in October 1974; Ramsey McDonald was defeated in the Commons on a confidence motion and similarly asked the king to dissolve Parliament in November 1924.
If there is another hung Parliament – this is not what will happen after this election. This time Mr Cameron or any other party leader who can put together a majority in the House of Commons will be asked by the Queen to form a government. For this purpose, the Queen’s Private Secretary will have an desk in the Cabinet Office – behind no 10. He and the Cabinet Secretary will arbiter the politicians and keep the Queen clear of the party leaders and the party politics of coalition. The Queen is no longer formally involved; she is no longer reliant on the ‘advice’ of her Prime Minster; and no longer informally bound to accept that advice. Whoever gets to the magic number of 326 MP’s – or can make a stable majority by another route – will get the nod from the Cabinet Secretary and the Queen’s Private Secretary and will be then formally be asked to form a government. In this struggle to assemble enough votes Cameron and Miliband are now equal. Neither being the incumbent PM nor being the party with the largest number of MP’s – or even a plurality of votes – is sufficient of itself – to obtain the right to form or lead government; or to enjoy the privilege of getting the first chance to assemble a coalition. Whoever assembles a working majority will govern.
Clearly if any party wins 326 seats outright then de facto it has a majority and will form of government.
However, that is at least as unlikely an outcome as it was at this stage of the last election – indeed more unlikely – since last time at this stage the Conservatives held a 7-8% advantage over Labour in the polls – 37% to 29%. Of the latest polls two have Labour ahead by 2-4%; and one a Conservative lead of 4% but frankly these leads between the two larger parties have flowed and ebbed for the better part of nine months. In the time left it seems unlikely either Labour or Conservatives will break into a decisive lead. The best assumption is the next Parliament will be hung – and most probably more hung than the last.These are the working assumptions of the Civil Service.
This time it is also highly unlikely that one large party and alone with one other will together command a decisive majority. Last time the Conservatives 307 MP’s combined with the LibDem 57 MP’s to created a coalition with an very effective working majority – and in both Houses of Parliament. This time it will be different. First, the SNP is likely to take about 40-50 seats. Secondly, the LibDems have slumped from 23% to 8% and therefore will loose at least half or more of their seats. Thirdly, even the modest rise of Labour into percentages in the low to mid thirties - a rise of say 4% on its last election performance – will put a good number of Conservative marginals at risk. The Conservatives could loose up to 40-50 seats to Labour whilst picking up 15 or more Liberal seats. Then we have both UKip and the Greens – who remain unlikely to win many but who may have 6 seats between them. Finally there will be the Irish Unionists (12-15); 2 Irish SDLP and perhaps 3 Sinn Fein MP’s – the latter have previously never taken their seats in the UK Parliament. Shaking this political kaleidoscope will not necessarily throw up a government composed from party colours in any possible pattern. Metaphorically speaking the parliamentary politics works rather more like dice, loaded in Labour’s favour. How so, you ask? The answer is easy enough to divine.
Given the Labour Party, the Scots and Welsh Nationalists; the Irish SDLP; and any Green Party MP(s) would actively vote down any Conservative government, the road to assembling a Conservative led coalition or a Conservative minority government is filled with potholes. For Mr Cameron to be able to pursue such a course his party would need to win upwards of 290 MP’s and probably nearer to 300. He would then need to find thirty votes from the Irish Unionists and the LibDems. If Mr Clegg loses his seat or loses the LibDem leadership getting LibDem support might prove harder than last time round. Indeed signs are the risk averse in the LibDem leadership are already thinking only in terms if supply and confidence. Even the NI Unionists are talking in terms of supply and confidence.
The converse is true for Mr Miliband – since he starts off with the Scots and Welsh Nationalists; the Irish SDLP; and any Green Party MP(s) on side. Therefore were he to tempt either the Irish unionists into a supply and confidence arrangement or indeed the LibDems into a similar arrangement - as they did with Callaghan’s Labour minority government in 1976-8 Miliband could form a government and govern as a minority government for at least a stable period of three or four years or even five years.
If Mr Cameron were to insist on meeting the new Parliament it is certain the crown would not attend a state opening. There would be and could be no Queen’s Speech setting out the government program. Instead legislation rather suggests the government would first need to put down or table and carry a confidence motion just in order to establish it had the votes to command the business in the two houses of Parliament – and only then could it form a government. If Labour the Nationalists and the Greens together have over 305-10 votes – the Conservatives would be very unlikely to be able to create a stable government. indeed the LibDems might be just as likely to join the larger more representative coalition as to one narrowly based, even if Mr Clegg wanted to continue as deputy Prime Minister.
The hill for the Conservatives to climb back to power is steeper but it far from impossible. there are now so many local imponderables that local campaigns may make all the difference. most elections throw up a handful of odd results this one might throw up twenty or thirty. That throws any psephologists predictions completely out. It will be a long night.
Meanwhile we have the debates. Thus far both Sky’s Ms Burley and freelance conservative supporter Paxman felt able to ask in excusably rude questions to the Labour leader. Strangely, Ed survived the kicking they tried to administer in rather better shape than many expected. Miliband in the only leader who will participate in all the ‘debates’. He turns out to be rather better than many hoped or feared – hence the reason Cameron has gone very personal very early.In that sense Cameron’s announcement of not serving a Third term is not only lifted straight from the Tony Blair election book but it has left hostages to fortune.
The problem for Cameron is the same problem he faced in 2010 – the Conservative Party divided over Europe and culturally at war with itself, has failed to win a general election since 1992. Even the unelectable Ted Heath managed to do better. In fact Mrs Thatcher was believed pretty unelectable in 1979. The thrones of kings and seats of power have been filled many times by men and women everyone believed should not have made it. Mr Cameron should note – born to rule doesn’t mean the rules can’t be changed.