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?