“Nobody knows who’ll be prime minister by the end of next week,” said Justin Webb at the start of the Today programme on Radio 4 yesterday. Actually, we do: it will be David Cameron. And it’s likely to be David Cameron for not just the day after the election, but also the weekend after, and quite possibly a good deal of the following week.
Cameron will stay prime minister for as long as he think he can piece together a majority in the House of Commons to win a vote of confidence. This could be some time. In fact, it’s highly likely to be some time, for Cameron gives the impression of someone who is willing to try almost anything to remain prime minister, should circumstances allow.
Equally he seems to be the sort of person who, the moment he realises the game is up, will concede defeat gracefully. The immediate aftermath of the election may be messy, but it will be a sort of dignified mess, with much emphasis on decorum and procedure amid the bartering and gossip.
As sitting prime minister, David Cameron certainly has the upper hand over Ed Miliband and it’s worth remembering this, regardless of how the country votes a week today. As the incumbent, most scenarios favour Cameron and all allow him to make the first move. Here are four of the most obvious ones:
1. 1992 scenario
The Conservatives pull off an unexpected victory that leaves them not merely the largest party in parliament but with a small, working majority. It would be a remarkable turnaround and fly in the face of what every opinion poll is suggesting, but it’s a scenario that a few commentators – Dan Hodges of the Telegraph, Margaret Thatcher’s former election adviser Lord Bell – believe is still likely.
2. 2010 scenario
A rerun of the last election. We get a hung parliament with the Tories once again the largest party in terms of both seats and votes, and with the arithmetic favouring another coalition with either the Lib Dems or the Lib Dems plus the DUP. If a coalition is not desired by one or all of these parties, a looser arrangement could easily work, if for a more limited period: a precedent being the Lab-Lib pact of 1977-78.
3. February 1974 scenario
The Tories win the most number of votes but Labour win the most number of seats. As Ted Heath did in 1974, Cameron is quite entitled to stay in office and work at putting together a coalition or a pact that would see him win a vote of confidence in the Commons. Parliament is not due to meet for the first time until 18 May, which gives him plenty of time. The State Opening isn’t until 27 May, which means a vote on the Queen’s Speech isn’t likely until the very end of May or even early June.
4. 1923 scenario
The Tories win the most votes and seats, but are dwarfed in the Commons by a combination of the next two parties. In 1923 this was Labour and the Liberals; in 2015 it’s likely to be Labour and the SNP. Interestingly, the sitting Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin waited a full month before resigning, hanging on until parliament reassembled and he lost a vote of confidence, rather than give up after a few days of fruitless coalition discussion. It’s not inconceivable that Cameron would do the same.
In each of these outcomes David Cameron remains prime minister for at least a few weeks after the election, at most for the lifetime of the next parliament.
The one scenario I can see him deciding to step down quickly is if the Tories do so badly – losing 50 or so seats to Labour, despite Labour also losing 30+ seats to the SNP – that it is pretty obvious even a Tory-led minority coalition would not be workable. But even then, I doubt he will gone by the end of next week. Monday 11 May feels like the most likely date, once all the VE Day anniversary commemorations are over.