UK election update: Everyone needs to go take a nap

Well, this has gotten a lot more interesting than anyone would have predicted. At the moment, the facts are as follows:

(1) There are still 30-something seats that are undecided, most going through recounts at the moment;

(2) even once all those are decided, no single party will be able to form a parliamentary majority;

(3) at the moment, the Conservatives have 291 seats, Labour 251, the Lib Dems 52, and various small parties 27 (and this will probably change shortly);

(4) both the Tories and Labour came in where the polls predicted (at about 36% and 29% of the total vote, respectively), but the Lib Dems significantly under-performed, and currently stand at about 23% of the total vote—better than last time, but still hugely disappointing, no doubt—in fact, they’ve lost a couple of seats;

(5) the Tories got the largest number of votes, about 2 million votes ahead of Labour. At first blush, though, it looks like a lot of people who thought about voting Lib Dem ended up voting Labour. Turnout was very high overall, at about 65%–certainly higher than the last election. That seems to have happened in the case of my own totally useless MP, Glenda Jackson—she came in ahead of the Tory candidate by 44 votes. The Lib Dem candidate who was slightly favored by the polls to win actually came in third.

Where does this leave us? Well, in a bit of a mess. The consensus up to this morning was that the Lib Dems would get enough seats to be the swing factor in the formation of a new government if the Tories failed to get a majority. In actuality, they can’t—they don’t have enough seats to combine with where Labour is expected to be able to form a majority. In fact, the combined Lib Dem/Labour total seats will be about the same as that of the Tories, if present trends hold. This means the small parties become crucial, but this probably doesn’t help either. With the exception to the election of Britains’s first Green Party MP, these are all from Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the cost of bringing these parties into a coalition—no cuts to services to Northern Ireland or Scotland—will be politically intolerable to MPs from England.

So the possibilities now are the following:

1. The Tories try to form a minority government;

2. Labour tries to form a minority government;

3. A Tory/Lib Dem coalition that does form a majority.

The first two are both problematic, but possible, although it has to be said that the prospects for the Tories are better simply because they have more votes. However, at present thy only have 291 votes in Parliament, and unless they get over 300, this will be more difficult political argument to sustain. They will probably go over 300, though. But the Tories will still also be hugely disappointed, given expectations a month ago that they would be able on their own to form a comfortable majority. It relies, then, on the cooperation of the Lib Dems to actually pass legislation, and the Lib Dem price here probably will be (a) pass proportional representation (which the Tories have fiercely opposed in the past, (b) make Vince Cable the Chancellor, and (c) don’t do anything stupid about trying to disengage from Europe. In other words, there is a scenario where the Lib Dems would curb the natural potential excesses of the Tories. Most people could probably live with this. Except maybe the high number of Tories who viscerally oppose proportional representation, and who might actively try to prevent Cameron from pursuing this path. Which could kill any potential alignment between the two parties, and perhaps doom Tory efforts to from a minority government.

And except maybe Labour, who show signs of fighting on, maybe. Now, what happens next is more or less the following:

(1) The Queen asks Gordon Brown, as the sitting Prime Minister, whether he can form a government;

(2) Brown either says yes or no. If no, he resigns, and she then asks Cameron is he can form a government. (go to (3)—if yes, he has a week to try to do this, according to most sources I’ve checked, although there are some commentators on TV who are saying it could be longer;

(3) Cameron either says yes or no. If yes, he tries to form one, presumably along the lines described above. If no, I have no idea what happens next. But there has to be a government, so it will probably fall upon Cameron to say yes, either with a cobbled-together majority, or as a minority government. No one gives this more than six months, by the way, so we could be seeing more elections sooner than anyone might wish.

As I write this, Nick Clegg has just made a short speech, reiterating his previous comments that it’s his position that the party with the largest popular vote and the largest bunch of MPs should have an opportunity to try to form a government. This would be the Tories, of course. This was an offer to Cameron, and a challenge to Brown. And the day has just started. All of these people—politicians, advisors, commentators—are currently operating on the basis of no sleep, too, which has the potential to create interesting sorts of mischief.

At one level, this is hugely entertaining, of course. But politically, it’s a mess. What will Brown do? Who knows? At this point, he’s intimated he might try to motor ahead anyway, regardless of the actual outcome—the only real mandate he can claim is that he’s still the Prime Minister, but it’s a justifiable one in terms of both the law and protocol. But Cameron’s party got the most votes, and the most seats. So there will lots of blather about “mandates” today and the days to come. And this is going to involve a whole lot of negotiation, compromise, and flat out horse trading. The Lib Dems may not have gotten the electoral breakthrough that they wanted, but they may still hold the balance of power here. Except for those who actually have to sort this out, this is all pretty exciting. For political junkies like me, it doesn’t get much better than this.

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12 replies »

  1. This may not make sense. I had about 4 hours sleep.

    The BBC have just described the election result here in Scotland as fascinating. On the face of it, this is almost silly, given that the election produced exactly the same result as that in 2005, with Labour regaining the two seats lost in by-elections in the interim. Its fascinating, though, because of the implications. In Scotland, there was only a tiny swing to the Conservatives, with far bigger swings *to* Labour and the to the SNP. The Liberal Democrats lost ground. Local swings went all over the place. Personalities mattered, it seems. The results, once again, are Labour 41 seats, Liberal Democrats 11, SNP 6, Conservative 1.

    With the return of the Conservatives as the largest party, the issue of “democratic deficit” returns to British politics. In the 1980s and 1990s Conservative governments were elected despite Scottish and Welsh voters overwhelmingly voting for other parties (Labour, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats). Northern Irish politics have always been separate from British politics, with a Nationalist vs Unionist axis, rather than left right. So for 18 years, two nations voted overwhelmingly for the left but were ruled by the right. The result of this was the Scottish Constitutional Convention and ultimately devolution.

    For clarification to US readers, its probably fair to say that all the political parties represented in the Scottish parliament are to the left of the Democrats, the Scottish Conservatives (and Unionist – in the Northern Irish meaning) tending to be somewhat to the left of many of their English compatriots. They would, for example, be unlikely to ever suggest reducing the scope of the Scottish National Health Service.

    In this election the Conservatives have made some ground in Wales, but here in Scotland they are the fourth party in both the Scottish parliament (elected under proportional representation and where the SNP have been the minority government for three years – they poll considerably higher in Scottish elections) and in Westminster. Under the Westminster electoral system this has once again translated to a single Scottish seat – “The Only Tory in Scotland (TM)” David Blundell in Dumfriesshire, Clydedale and Tweeddale, which incidentally includes Lockerbie.

    So once again we in Scotland are in a position of being ruled by a government (assuming the Conservatives do form a government) which we overwhelmingly did not vote for. Where will this lead us now? I’ll put my cards on my table. I voted SNP and support an independent Scotland. Having grown up in New Zealand I see no disadvantage to being a small country of 5.5 million people. Being on the edge of Europe is an additional advantage – at which, I look to the north-east, towards Norway.

  2. It is interesting about the results in Scotland. I’m not surprised there was so little swing to the conservatrives–what does surprise me, in Scotland and elsewhere, that there wan’t more of a general swing to the Lib Dems. It’s not just Scotland, I noticed–the Conservatives made very little headway in the north in general.
    I’m watching the BBC ritght now waiting for Cameron to show up. This should be fun.

    The BBC also had some Tory MPs on who were expressing very strong opposition to PR. I don’t dislike Camerron, but that party of his…

    whoops, here he is. Back later.

  3. well, this will go on for a couple of days, and I’m going to enjoy it immensely, which I know is perverse, but I can’t help it. Next move is Clegg’s.

    I still remember my first visit to Shetland five years ago, and being delighted to discover that when the high school kids wanted to go off to a city to blow off some steam, they headed off to…Bergen!

  4. Thanks, Wufnik, for your ongoing explanations of the British electoral system for Americans.

  5. Yes, it’s fascinating. And I’m still laughing about “everyone needs to take a nap.”

  6. Ann, we definitely all need to take a nap!

    Its interesting how horrified various commentators are about the fact it is a hung parliament. This is of course not uncommon elsewhere in Europe, the norm in many countries (and also in New Zealand, where I spent most of the first half of my own life).

    Indeed, the devolved assemblies, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly elections have never resulted in a majority for any one party. Scotland has had a minority government for the last three years.

    At this point, Labour & the Lib Dems could form a majority government but only if they also got co-operation from the SDLP and Alliance in Northern Ireland (who traditional align with Labour and the Lib Dems respectively) and of the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru. That would give them 328 seats.

    It may be that the latter are prepared to support such a coalition on a “supply and confidence” basis, promising to vote with the government in matters of supply (the budget) and in votes of no-confidence, rather than support all their policies.

  7. What role, if any, does the Queen have to play here? Can she call the principles into her palace and, metaphorically speaking, knock heads together and tell them to figure something out before she gets REALLY angry?

  8. Typos now fixed.

    Ann–it’s true that the Scottish and Northern Ireland parties could help the Lib Dems and Labour to put together a majority. But I thought it was pretty clear that the price of that cooperation was that there would be no major cuts to services, especially in Scotland. And I just don’t see that as being acceptable to the rest of the Parliament.

    Actually, as I’ve said before, pretty much everyone I know in the City didn’t mind the prospect of a hung parliament because of the prospect of getting Vince Cable as Chancellor. That dynamic has changed, though, since it’s not clear that that’s a given now.

  9. The Queen has an important but mostly ceremonial role here, mostly implied in and derived from a Bill of Rights that dates to 1689. First, she has the ceremonial role of accepting the resignation of the existing Prime Minister (or not, as applicable) if the Prime Minister cannot put a working majority together. This means a government that can survive a vote of confidence. This will be either a working coalition, or a minority government that assumes power through the tacit support of enough other MPs who agree to support the minority in a confidence vote. The Queen is not involved in any of these negotiations. If the Prime Minister can’t do any of this, then he resigns, and he recommends to the Queen who she should next ask. The Queen would then ask whoever that is to do this. Eventually, something gets put together, all through the offices of the Queen. It’s ceremonial to an extent, but it’s also the way it works.

    In theory, the Prime Minister could ask the Queen to hold another election if he is unable to put a majority together, but she is under no obligation to agree, and almost certainly would not in this case. But note that this reveals the potential power that the Queen has, if she ever chose to exercise it–she could refuse to dissolve Parliament if she thought the Prime Minister should keep at it. So this would be the “banging heads together” part. She’s never used this power, but it’s there.

    The other important ceremonial task is the Queen’s Speech, which is prepared by the new Prime Minister (or the old one, if he’s still in power.) (It is also used to open Parliament every year in October or November.) This is set by the old Prime Minister when he dissolves Parliament before the election, and in this case it’s May 25. The speech gets voted on by the new Parliament, and it is considered a confidence vote, which means that the government in place has to be able to survive that vote, or else it’s considered a vote of no confidence and there needs to be a new election immediately. Hence all the activity right now to create a government that will be in place that will survive that vote. No activity can take place in Parliament until after the Queen’s Speech and the subsequent vote.

    Of course, what happens in this case, with the hung parliament, doesn’t happen every election, but it has happened before. But it does raise a question–if the Queen has no executive role in the government, how come all this folderol has to happen for the government to be legitimate? One of the more wonderful quirks of he British, obviously.

  10. Brian,

    For an indication of the potential power of the Crown in this situation, it might be interesting to read up on the removal of the Whitlam government in Australia is 1975. The powers of the Governors-General of Australia, New Zealand and Canada is analogous to that of the Queen at Westminster. It touches on the issues of bicamerality in a Westminster system (although in Australia the Senate is elected, whereas the House of Lords is not – yet) but it is a demonstration of the power that the Crown (in the form of the Queen, or in Australia, NZ and Canada the Governor-General) can wield over the formation and dismissal of a government.

    Wikipedia has, as ever, a broad overview: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1975_Australian_constitutional_crisis

  11. Some election maths*…

    649 seats have declared. One will not vote until May 27 due to the death of a candidate. That seat will probably go Conservative.

    Notionally, a working majority is therefore 326 seats, however since Sinn Fein (who won four seats in Northern Ireland) do not take their seats, its actually 324

    The Conservatives have 306 seats. With the Liberal Democrats (57), the have a comfortable majority with 363 seats. Whether the Lib Dems will back down on proportional representation or whether the Conservatives will persuade their backbenchers (the powerful “1922 Committee”) to accept it will be what decides whether this goes ahead. And really this has always been the problem. The Liberal Democrats and their predecessors the Liberals have been pressing for proportional representation for almost a century. We have them to thank for most of the extensions to franchise in the 19th and early 20th centuries and its continued to be part of their core platform. The Conservatives, particularly the 1922 Committee leadership, are vehemently opposed to this. The Lib Dems may be bought off with an elected upper chamber (the Lords is no longer hereditary, its now largely appointed) but I suspect (and hope) not.

    If that doesn’t work out, can Labour form a government? Theoretically, yes but the maths is complicated.

    Labour have 258 seats. With the Lib Dems, this gives a coalition of 315, 8 short of a working majority.

    In Northern Ireland, SDLP take the Labour whip and the Alliance take the Lib Dem whip. That’s another 4 seats. 319, four short.

    This leaves the smaller parties with the balance of power. They have:

    Democratic Unionist Party – 8 seats
    Scottish National Party – 6 seats
    Plaid Cymru – 3 seats
    Green Party – 1 seat.
    One independent (Lady Sylvia Herman, a former Ulster Unionist who objected to their alliance with the Conservatives).

    Its relatively unlikely that the DUP or Lady Hermon will be interested in a coaltion with any of the main three parties.

    The SNP have said no coalition (Labour are their bitter enemies in Scotland, where three parties are competing for the Left of Centre vote).

    Technically, Labour and the Lib Dems could, just, form a working majority with Plaid Cymru (although *they* are in an alliance with the SNP, so may not be willing) and our newly elected Green MP. Really, they need the SNP. Will that happen. And at what price?

    * Yes, we say maths, this side of the pond, not math!

  12. A BBC commentator has just said that it might be in the best interests of the country that every involved go to bed and get some sleep tonight!. This may be good advice.