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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

UK election: Where next?

Just back from Japan, from where I was closely following the UK election on Twitter (your best place for my day-to-day political commentary these days, though be warned they’re usually more jokey – and sweary – than here…)

After 30 hours offline, and 44 hours after the polling booths closed, the UK still doesn’t have a new government. As such, witness the wonders of my jetlag-inspired political guesswork!

I’d be surprised if this lack of a government lasted beyond Monday morning, largely because the next government will want to look responsible – and we had some serious global financial trouble on Friday for a variety of reasons (NY stock exchange hiccough, Greek crisis, UK election uncertainty, etc.). They’ll want to have a government before the markets open, if they can…)

Here’s what I currently reckon will happen, rejigged from a few comments on Twitter:

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s playing this absolutely perfectly so far – he has solid offers to join coalitions from both Labour and the Conservatives, and significant policy differences with both, and has explicitly stated that the Tories – with more seats and more of the vote – should have the right to “seek to form” a government first.

But the Tories can’t get a parliamentary majority without Lib Dem support. At least, not a stable one. Not the sort of majority that they’d need to do, well, just about anything.

But Labour and the Lib Dems combined can’t get a parliamentary majority without other parties’ support either.

Clegg has also repeatedly mentioned “the national interest” and equated this with electoral reform (unsurprising, considering Labour got only 5% more of the vote than the Lib Dems, but 5 times the parliamentary seats).

The Tories are fundamentally opposed to the sort of Proportional Representation-style electoral reform that the Lib Dems want (usually single transferable vote) – which is hardly surprising, as it would almost certainly lead to a permanent Labour/Lib Dem coalition (there being very few other parties on the centre right that are likely to end up big enough to give the Tories the backing they’d need under such a system).

So, Clegg is giving the impression that he’s willing to work with the Tories – and probably is – but his one major condition is a deal-breaker for Cameron and co.

So I’m now fairly convinced that Prime Minister Cameron’s not going to happen. If Cameron rejects PR, as he must to keep his party behind him (there have already been dire warnings from the right wing of the Conservative Party about such a move, in the shape of Thatcher-era relic Lord Tebbit), then a Lib Dem/Labour/Scottish National Party / Plaid Cymru coalition has first dibs (SNP leader Alex Salmond has already openly proposed this).

Constituionally-speaking, Gordon Brown retains first right to try to form a government, as the sitting Prime Minister in a hung parliament. With Lib Dem, SNP and Plaid Cymru support, the coalition would have an outright majority – able to outvote the Tories and their allies on anything. As such, despite his unpopularity (and calls from within his own party to step down), Brown could yet remain as caretaker PM of a coalition expressly set up to bring in electoral reform.

This would actually be a very sensible option, for several reasons:

1) It would be constitutionally unprecedented for Cameron to form a minority government in the current circumstances – he is impotent until he has enough supporters to claim an outright majority. This looks to be impossible.

2) The constitution explicitly states that Gordon Brown remains Prime Minister, so using him as a figurehead for any new coalition is – constitutionally – the least harmful in the short term.

3) Anyone unhappy with Brown remaining as PM simply adds to the case for major constitutional reform with their objections.

4) This would also give both Labour *and* the Conservatives time to sort themselves out, as they are blatantly in a shambles at the moment.

So, what I’d suggest is a short-term multi-party national coalition *explicitly* for electoral *and* parliamentary/constitutional reform, as well as to maintain some form of stability in the midst of an ongoing financial crisis, keeping Gordon Brown as a figurehead Prime Minister for constitutional reasons alone, with an explicit promise that he will step down once the basic reforms are in place to have a fresh election under a new electoral system.

One final note: There’s nothing to say – constitutionally – that the Prime Minister has to be a party leader. Nor even that he has to be an MP… The question is, is there *anyone* who could be seen as a sufficiently impartial lynchpin to take on the task of leading a coalition of (at least) four parties?

25 Comments

  1. Two points, one of agreement, one disagreement, latter first

    it would almost certainly lead to a permanent Labour/Lib Dem coalition (there being very few other parties on the centre right that are likely to end up big enough to give the Tories the backing they’d need under such a system).

    Disagree with this, completely.

    FPTP distorts the electoral system and forces broad coalition parties (you know this, but, y’know). The Lib Dems are such a broad coalition, made up of rightish Whigs, lefty radicals like me and genuine liberals/left-libertarians.

    The Conservatives are also a broad coalition, including headbanging Cornerstones through to, well, rightish Whigs.

    Besides which, that Clegg is, seriously, entering this negotiation, and the party is broadly supportive of it happening (although agreement on details not guaranteed), pretty much destroys the very idea.

    Electoral reform, such as STV, would lead to all the current broad church parties breaking up and reforming. I’d expect to see a Whiggish party, broadly pro-European, on the right, and containing you, Ken Clarke and Ed McMillan Scott, as well as a radical liberal socialist party on the left, containing me, Unity and Chris Dillow, and that’s just for starters.

    STV would lead to real voter choice; and I suspect people without a party to vote for happily, like, well, you, would end up with some seriously good choices in the mid-term.

    I’d also expect to see Farage and Tebbit end up in the same headbanging party, and a real Christian Dominionist party with the likes of Dorries as well. Doubt they’d ever get very far, but, y’know…

    There’s nothing to say – constitutionally – that the Prime Minister has to be a party leader. Nor even that he has to be an MP… The question is, is there *anyone* who could be seen as a sufficiently impartial lynchpin to take on the task of leading a coalition of (at least) four parties?

    I made this point in an email to an internal LD list yesterday, and genuinely have no real clue.

    Ming Campbell, perhaps, he does have the respect of a lot of the house. Otherwise an English Labourite not too tightly linked to New Labour but not utterly incompetent; don’t know how you’d choose that, the likes of Bradshaw have been following the party line in order to get promoted high enough to change the party line, discrediting them more than perhaps they deserve.

    Cruddas?

  2. “With Lib Dem, SNP and Plaid Cymru support, the coalition would have an outright majority.”

    The trouble with this is that the SNP and Plaid do not, as a matter of principle, vote on English-only matters. As such, Labour could not form a majority on health, education or many aspects of law and order, etc.

    Not that a paralysed government would necessarily be a bad thing in most circumstances: in the country’s current state, however, it could well be an absolute disaster.

    DK

  3. Gah, something is wrong with the CSS in your template, those blockquotes should be nice and pretty, instead that post looks really strange.

    Wonder if it’s linked to the comment colouring setup

    Could be an easy fix, I like pretty blockquotes…

  4. 1) It would be constitutionally unprecedented for Cameron to form a minority government in the current circumstances – he is impotent until he has enough supporters to claim an outright majority. This looks to be impossible.

    Uhm, Nosemonkey… Wilson in 1974? He governed for 6 months in a minority administration. And he wasn’t the sitting PM before the election either.

    So I’m now fairly convinced that Prime Minister Cameron’s not going to happen.

    Disagree. History has shown us in these situations that the Party Leader with the most seats tends to be the Prime Minister.

    One final note: There’s nothing to say – constitutionally – that the Prime Minister has to be a party leader. Nor even that he has to be an MP… The question is, is there *anyone* who could be seen as a sufficiently impartial lynchpin to take on the task of leading a coalition of (at least) four parties?

    If this happened there would be uproar, maybe even rioting.

  5. OK, your css has fucked up because the sections I put in quotes appears as normal text.

  6. Mat – agreed on the party break-up scenario being likely (mentioned briefly in this old post“Labour and Conservatives alike (and arguably the Lib Dems too) really aren’t parties in the old sense any more anyway. There’s no real unifying ideology, just vast coalitions with hugely disparate, often contradictory beliefs, brought together merely by the pursuit of power”), and it’s something I’d like to see happen, what with hating the current party system.

    But you’d never sell that to the Tories for the same reason – successive elections (including this one) have shown that a majority of the electorate back centre-left, not centre-right parties in the UK. The right would, based on the votes of the last 30-40 years at least, almost certainly end up locked out. This is a massive over-simplification, of course, but the most obvious outcome based on a superficial analysis of what happens at the moment (not that what happens at the moment is likely to bear too much relationship to what would happen in a PR-style system of whatever stripe). I’m not at all surprised that they’re reluctant.

    (Sorry about the blockquotes, by the by – I’ve been meaning to rejig the tempate for ages, but haven’t had the time…)

    DK – Also agreed on the SNP/Plaid situation re: England. But by the same logic, with so little representation north of the border or in the principlality, the Tories don’t really have a mandate to govern there.

    But if the coalition was explicitly set up to bring about electoral and constitutional reform, with everything else being done more by cross-party consensus until a fresh election can be called under new rules in 2-3 years (as it’d probably take at least that long to work everything out), then the SNP/Plaid involvement’s not such an issue.

    I’d personally be a bit sad to see the Union broken up, but it’s the only viable option if the Tories want to maintain any chance of power, as they always do far better in England. They’re unlikely to ever go for it, though…

  7. Charles – Sorry, you posted as I posted.

    The ’74 scenario’s not quite the comparible just yet. Because after the first ’74 election, Heath remained as PM despite having fewer seats than Wilson/Labour, only resigning after he failed to form a viaible coalition.

    This time around, Brown has a far better chance of forming a viable coalition than Heath did, thanks to the potential of a team-up with the Lib Dems, SNP and Plaid (where Heath could only try a team-up with the Ulster Unionists). And – constitutionally – until Brown has *failed* to form a coalition, he still has the right to try. Cameron has no constitutional claim until Brown / Labour (if they ditch Brown) admits failure.

    If Cameron *does* get a chance to form a government (which I doubt), then he – like Wilson – would soon be forced to call a fresh election, or face successive defeats in the Commons from an array of parties wanting electoral reform. And based on the collapse of Tory support over the couple of months leading up to this election, I’m not at all convinced that he’d manage to pull off an increased share in the way that Wilson did in the second ’74 election. And I doubt he’d be keen on taking the risk…

  8. Christ – my spelling’s going to pot. Too little sleep, too much beer and whisky…

  9. Heh, me splelling’s not much better ;-)

    Re breakup of parties, possibly, possibly not, but I spoke to a lot of softish Tory voters voting for us because they’re turned off by things like their attitude to Europe or similar.

    Yes, the LDs are broadly left of centre, but there’s a chunk of the membership that distinctly aren’t, McMillan-Scott’s “conservative Liberals” are a minority, but a substantial one. And he’s not the only one within their ranks that supports STV. Remember Carswell came out in favour ages back, even Cameron’s said he’s not completely averse to STV specifically, he prefers FPTP, but he’s clearly considered other options.

    (BTW, I’ll look at your template later, I think it’d be an easy fix within the CSS, if it was just my comments messed up meh, I’ll type differently, but another on the same post… Email address still nm at gmail?

  10. Clive @ 7 Only partly agree with If Cameron *does* get a chance to form a government (which I doubt), then he – like Wilson – would soon be forced to call a fresh election, or face successive defeats in the Commons from an array of parties wanting electoral reform. I think facing successive defeats (and a no confidence vote, which is how I think whichever government emerges will die) will force the next election, so there is no ‘or’ – the ‘options’ are the same thing. And I don’t agree about the ‘array of parties wanting electoral reform’. I think he’ll find himself against some odd alliances; far right Tories will see a chance to humiliate him if they vote with the left. Strange tactical coalitions will form. I want to see electoral reform, but I’m not sure that that many MPs do.

    Oh, there doesn’t appear to be a blockquote definition in your CSS. I’d suggest editing the .entry blockquote defs by deleting the .entry part.

  11. A coalition set up to bring about electoral and constitutional reform is not what the UK needs right now. It’s the economy, the economy, the economy.

  12. french derek – the economy is (almost) *always* the most important factor. But I’m pretty convinced that no matter which party’s nominally in power, we’ll end up with more or less the same economic policies – there’s simply not enough economic leeway (or voter enthusiasm) to make any radical changes. (This interesting article and accompanying graphs tend to back up this vague take.) As such, the best bet is to form as stable a coalition as possible in the short-term to keep sterling and the markets happy, and try to make arrangements for an improved constitutional system in the medium-term.

  13. Agreed, a very interesting article. However, I would question whether anyone actually knows the real scale of debt, including PPP and PFI schemes – interest and repayments of which have to be met from governmental income. The chart in the article portrays the manifesto proposals – not the reality.

    From this side of the channel it looks as if whoever ends up in government will have to take some very hard decisions. And the pain of those decisions will be reflected back on them by the time another election comes round. Clegg would be best advised to agree to limited support of the Tories, but not a coalition. Once the economic future is set, he and his party can then act in what they consider to be the nation’s best interest – and vote accordingly. If he really wants to show himself as worthy of government then he would have the chance to show what that might mean.

  14. “There’s nothing to say – constitutionally – that the Prime Minister has to be a party leader. Nor even that he has to be an MP”

    Not true. The convention is that the PM has to be in the Commons – see Douglas-Home leaving the Lords to fight a by-election.

    “This time around, Brown has a far better chance of forming a viable coalition than Heath did, thanks to the potential of a team-up with the Lib Dems, SNP and Plaid (where Heath could only try a team-up with the Ulster Unionists).”

    Huh? Brown has to reach an agreement with several parties all at once, and keep them in line, and stay Labour leader, all while Cameron and Clegg fail to agree to a deal. Heath only had to agree to a deal with one party. Surely Heath had a much greater chance of getting a deal.

  15. Alex First, the fact that Douglas-Home *chose* to leave the Lords doesn’t mean that there’s a constitutional necessity for it. In this day and age, it obviously makes sense for the PM to be an elected politician, and to be in the Commons, but we’re talking about a system where an hereditary monarch is, technically, still the final arbiter of who gets to form a government. Also, lest we forget, the position of Prime Minister is, technically, not a constitutional one – it is, technically, just a nicety. The constitutional appointment is First Lord of the Treasury. And there is no reason whatsoever that there couldn’t be arrangements made to ensure that a PM sitting in the Lords could be questioned in the Commons once a week (which is pretty much the extent of the PM’s involvement in the Lower House these days, let’s face it).

    Second, the reason Heath “only had to agree a deal with one party” was because Heath *only had one party* that he had a chance of agreeing a deal with. Brown (or whoever Labour end up choosing as their representative) has the opportunity of forming a deal with more than one party. Hence them being in a stronger position than Heath was. (The Tories, on the other hand, only have the Ulster Unionists to fall back on if they can’t get the Lib Dems on board – pretty much exactly the position Heath found himself in in ’74.)

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  17. The only party that might side with the Tories under a PR coalition would be UKIP and while they don’t have any MP’s as of yet, under PR they would most likely be the 4th largest party.

    Hopefully with PR and people less likely to consider tactical voting the Green Party could increase on their current 1 MP, I would expect that they would be happy to join a left leaning coalition.

  18. “First, the fact that Douglas-Home *chose* to leave the Lords doesn’t mean that there’s a constitutional necessity for it.”

    Actually it does. We don’t have a codified constitution like almost every other country does – our constitution is essentially composed of important Acts of Parliament, dusty civil servant manuals, and conventions. D-H felt the need to renounce his peerage in order to be PM, and that shows it’s pretty obviously a convention.

    “but we’re talking about a system where an hereditary monarch is, technically, still the final arbiter of who gets to form a government”

    Yes, we have a constitutional monarchy.

    “Also, lest we forget, the position of Prime Minister is, technically, not a constitutional one – it is, technically, just a nicety. The constitutional appointment is First Lord of the Treasury.”

    The position of PM absolutely is a constitutional one. Arguably the most obvious part, other than the Crown. Just because there’s no Act of Parliament that defines the position (is there even anything that defines the First Lord of the Treasury?), doesn’t mean it’s not a part of the constitution. The position has existed officially for 100 years, and unofficially for a lot longer, so it is clearly a convention if not written down.

    “And there is no reason whatsoever that there couldn’t be arrangements made to ensure that a PM sitting in the Lords could be questioned in the Commons once a week (which is pretty much the extent of the PM’s involvement in the Lower House these days, let’s face it).”

    Sure, I’m not denying that Prime Minster Mandelson (or whoever!) couldn’t sit in the Lords, what I am saying is that you would have to break a constitutional convention for that to ever happen (unlikely though it is).

    “Brown (or whoever Labour end up choosing as their representative) has the opportunity of forming a deal with more than one party.”

    Who? Only some form of Rainbow agreement can get Labour a majority in the House of Commons. That means they need the Lib Dems (along with some Nationalists/Unionists etc). Heath just needed the Unionists.

  19. Alex< ?strong> – With Douglas-Home, the fact that he felt the need to renounce the peerage and get elected certainly sets a precedent – but until the situation arises again and someone else does the same, it doesn’t set a convention. We’ve had more Prime Ministers sitting in the Lords than we’ve had peers resigning from the Lords to become Prime Ministers in the Commons, after all – constitutionally, this means it could go either way.

    On the PM’s constitutional position, you could certainly argue that there is now a convention that the title of Prime Minister is official (the joys of the British constitution), but unlike pretty much every other senior Cabinet post (bar, well, Deputy Prime Minister), there’s no constitutional documentation setting out what the role is. Meanwhile, most of the powers associated with the PM remain explicitly, in technical terms, with the Crown.

    In the British constitution, the written parts are generally held to hold more sway than the unwritten parts – the Crown’s role is written, the Prime Minister’s unwritten, so even though the PM arguably (by convention) weild’s the powers of the Crown these days, this technically (until this is officially challenged, perhaps with the abolition of the monarchy) doesn’t mean that the position is a vital for the functioning of the British system.

    On the rainbow coalition, the SNP and Plaid Cymru have already offered to join a Lab-Lib coalition with electoral reform on offer. Caroline Lucas for the Greens could probably be convinced, as could the Alliance MP from Northern Ireland (likely to vote with the Lib Dems on most issues anyway).

    Finally, when you say “Heath just needed the Unionists”, you do realise that his reliance on just the Unionists was precisely the reason why he failed to form a viaible government in ’74, don’t you? More coalition partners can be a problem, for sure – but so can relying on just one.

  20. NM, more your field I know, but I’m pretty sure there’ve been some Acts that grant powers specifically to the Prime Minister by named office, not just to the Secretary of State, as they normally do.

    Buggered if I can remember which though. Lord Justice Laws would probably rule they’re Acts of Constitutional Significance though, that seems to be how his mind works.

  21. Mat – I’ve heard various people mention these Acts, but never had any specific ones pointed out to me. Happy to be proved wrong, as ever, but until I see them, I’ll continue to think the PM situation is more or less the same now as it was in the 19th century and Bagehot.

  22. The title of Prime Minister was recognised by an Order in Council by George V and is perfectly constitutional, if not based on statute. The First Lord of the Treasury is a significantly older title, as it refers to the fact his powers derive from the Lord High Treasurer, one of the oldest offices of state and one that has been in commission since the fall of the Earl of Oxford at the death of Queen Anne in 1714.

  23. Right – we should bow to Matt‘s superior knowledge on this one, as I know from his email address who he is and what his day-job is. (Shall we say that in Constitional History Top Trumps, I can usually claim to be an 8 or a 9, but he’s a 10…)

  24. Heh, was hoping it was that Matt. Had a look around different places, when I should be doing other things, but found nowt. TBH, care not, but, y’know…

  25. Re: coalition

    Well it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen now, so this all largely academic, but anyway (change tense below as appropriate):

    Nosemonkey, you originally said:

    “Brown has a far better chance of forming a viable coalition than Heath did, thanks to the potential of a team-up with the Lib Dems, SNP and Plaid (where Heath could only try a team-up with the Ulster Unionists)”

    I know that Heath failed, but you were saying that Brown has a greater chance than Heath because there are several parties to join up with, compared with Heath who needed specifically the Ulster Unionists.

    But Brown doesn’t have any flexibility in his coalition: he doesn’t have a choice of 3+ parties, he needs ALL 3+ to come on board. Heath just needed one party to come on board. Brown needs to succeed where Heath failed and form a coalition with one party (Lib Dems), then get another (say SNP) then another, and perhaps more. Brown needs several agreements, Heath needed just one.