Six months from today, the country will be waking up to find it has elected a new… what exactly?
I first asked that question six months ago when I began this blog, and when the election was still a whole year away. Back then I suggested three answers: a Labour majority, a Conservative majority, or Labour being the largest party in a hung parliament. I thought the last of these was most likely, and to that end concluded we’d be waking up on Friday 8 May 2015 to find we hadn’t elected a new government at all. Instead no party would have reached the magic figure of 326 seats needed to have an absolute majority in the House of Commons. A period of negotiation would be about to begin, culminating in a coalition agreement between two parties. I believed this would be between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Six months on from that forecast I still think we’re heading for a hung parliament. But there are no longer just three scenarios to consider. And it’s not the case a coalition may come about between merely two parties.
Starting with the assumption that no single party will win enough seats to have an outright majority, I reckon there are now a total of six realistic scenarios, each involving a different combination of parties and calculation of seats. Any one of these could be facing us the morning after the election.
1. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition
In other words, the same as before. For this to happen the Lib Dems would need to limit their losses to a small enough number to still make it possible for a combined total with the Tories to add up to more than 326. At the 2010 election the combined number was 373 (306 Conservatives + 57 Lib Dems). Nick Clegg’s party could lose 20 or so seats and still give the Tories enough extra MPs to pass the winning line – assuming the Tories don’t lose too many of their own, of course.
2. A Conservative minority government
If the Tories get close enough to 326 to feel they can get by without entering a formal coalition with anybody, they might decide to go it alone. The party could negotiate an ad hoc agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, or even – whisper it – with Ukip. A minority government could not last for five years, however, and a fresh election would have to take place before too long.
3. A Labour minority government
Labour may choose to also go it alone if it gets close enough to 326 to feel it more of a hindrance than a help to enter a formal coalition with anyone. But I think this scenario would only have the smack of legitimacy if the Tories had been badly beaten. There would need to be a large enough bloc of anti-Tory opinion in the new House of Commons for a Labour minority government to be both constitutionally and practically viable. That means a good showing by the nationalists and the SDLP in Northern Ireland, as well as a Liberal Democrat party that was willing to switch its allegiance from the Conservatives. If Nick Clegg feels sufficiently justified in swapping one bedfellow for another, and if Labour will have him, we may end up with…
4. A Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition
This seemed like the default outcome for much of the past six months, even though opinion polls in the first half of 2014 suggested Labour was on course for a majority. I still feel it is the most plausible scenario, if no longer highly likely. But were it to come to pass, it would be more through arithmetical necessity rather than ideological consummation. You get the sense that most senior Lib Dem politicians would rather carry on dealing with the Conservatives than Labour.
5. A Labour-Liberal Democrat-SNP coalition
Now we get to the multi-party options. If the SNP takes its toll on Labour in Scotland, Ed Miliband may find that even a coalition with the Lib Dems is not enough to get him past the 326-seat mark. A “progressive” coalition might then come into being – more precisely, an “anti-Tory” coalition – but the SNP would surely want to exact a juicy price for such an arrangement. It remains the fact that there are more parties in the UK opposed to the Conservatives than those willing to make any kind of accommodation with them. Miliband’s list of potential allies is longer than that of David Cameron. But ensuring any kind of multi-party coalition lasted five years would need at its helm a master tactician and manager. Is the Labour leader either of those?
6. A Conservative-DUP-Ukip coalition
It could never happen – or could it? Ukip currently says it would support a Tory government on a “confidence and supply” model; in other words, supporting legislation on a vote-by-vote basis. But I have no doubt whatsoever this attitude would change were the Tories to dangle a seat in the cabinet in front of Nigel Farage. Throw in the DUP’s eight MPs and you’d have an alliance of the main right-wing parties in the Commons. Such an arrangement would have more legitimacy if the Tories and Ukip combined won more votes than Labour and the Lib Dems. This could very well happen. Indeed, the matter of who wins most votes versus who wins most seats could underpin much of what plays out in those feverish few days immediately after the election.
If the result is very close – a mere handful of seats, as in February 1974 – precedent would give David Cameron, as the sitting prime minister, the first go at forming a government. Negotiations might take days, even weeks. But I think that would be no bad thing. The coalition talks in 2010 were far too rushed, framed by an illusory threat of an “economic crisis” that was never going to happen. The coalition talks of 2015 need to be different. Embarking on a further five years of shared government ought to give politicians of every hue pause for thought.
If they haven’t already done so, someone should start booking a few meeting rooms in Whitehall.