Election campaign

Whoever gets to form the next government should take their time

If party leaders are looking for a precedent of how long it should take to form a government, they’d do well to cast a bit further back than five years ago.

The election of 2010 was resolved in a rush and a ramshackle fashion. Gordon Brown was right to continue as prime minister until it was obvious David Cameron would be able to form a government, but the five days Brown remained in Downing Street was criticised at the time for being too long. This was ridiculous. There should be no time limit on the negotiation of a stable administration. Ted Heath resigned four days after losing the February 1974 general election, but only because by then it was already obvious he would not be able to form a coalition with the Liberals.

A more useful example, and one it wouldn’t harm our current politicians to consider, is Stanley Baldwin. When he failed to win a majority in the 1923 general election, he didn’t wait four days until resigning. He waited four weeks.

The election was held on 6 December 1923; Baldwin didn’t leave Downing Street until the start of the following month. Rather than pack his bags in a rush, he waited until parliament reassembled after Christmas, whereupon his government was defeated on a vote of confidence.

In the intervening weeks various combinations of parties and governments were mooted and discussed calmly and at length.

The Tories had won the most seats and the most votes in the election, but were 50 MPs short of a majority in the Commons.

Baldwin’s 258 seats was outranked easily by the combined total for Labour (191) plus the Liberals (158). But he nonetheless explored the options for leading some kind of new administration, while his counterparts Ramsay MacDonald (Labour) and Herbert Asquith (Liberal) did the same.

It soon became clear that a Tory-Liberal coalition was impossible due to a clash of policies (the parties had fought the election on opposing attitudes towards free trade) and personalities (Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain refused to serve in any government which also contained the former Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George). For similar reasons, the Tories would not support a Liberal minority government.

But a Labour-Liberal coalition proved equally unworkable. Ramsay MacDonald had no wish to sit in the same government as Lloyd George, and Labour members were resistant to any kind of formal deal for fear of being seen to betray their working-class support.

In the end King George V did the obvious mathematical and constitutional thing. He sent for MacDonald once Baldwin’s government had fallen, and a Labour minority government took office.

The country did not grind to a halt during the four weeks between the election and MacDonald becoming prime minister. There was no political or economic meltdown, no rioting in the streets, no crisis of any kind.

I’m not suggesting you can do a like-for-like comparison between 2015 and 1929, but the precedent is there for taking a bit longer to form a new government than merely a handful of days.

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Discussion

3 responses to ‘Whoever gets to form the next government should take their time

  1. Indeed, but then the date when Parliament is recalled becomes really quite important, as that determines when a vote of no confidence may be called. Do we have a date yet? Who decides? The Speaker? “Usual channels”? The PM?

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