by Jonathan Todd
In FT Weekend, GOD – as Gus O’Donnell was known as head of the civil service 2005-2011 – reports that “by some calculations there are as many as 11 different possible outcomes” to the general election. “These include minority governments, multiparty coalitions, coalitions with side deals, variants in which some MPs do not vote on certain English issues – as well as a vanilla one-party majority”. Here are five observations on this.
1.) Whichever of David Cameron and Ed Miliband has most MPs will be PM
This might seem utterly obvious but The Economist report that as “the Scottish National Party, Greens and struggling Lib Dems (are) all prepared to support a left-leaning government … Miliband (could be in) power even if Labour wins considerably fewer seats and votes than the Tories”.
Seriously? They would make the less than universally popular Miliband PM if he has fewer MPs and votes? I’m doubtful. Equally, Cameron would not stay PM if he has fewer MPs and votes. Most MPs trumps most votes. But being behind on both MPs and votes is unsalvageable.
2.) Majority will be hard won
“We really need,” a senior Lib Dem recently told The Evening Standard, “45 MPs to go into another coalition.” More MPs than polling suggests they will return. “At some point it just becomes a matter of numbers. You have to fill Cabinet positions, junior ministerial positions, select committee chairs — things like that – while also having places for MPs sulking or who don’t want to sit in government.”
If – as Atul Hatwal predicts – they have a number of MPs in the high 30s or very low 40s, they’d fall short of this 45 MP benchmark. Meaning that, irrespective of Nick Clegg’s preferences, another coalition would be difficult for them. Lib Dem strength depends on performance in two heartlands: in the south west, where the Tories threaten, and in rural Scotland, where the SNP do. The SNP are also, of course, seeking to eat into Scottish Labour heartlands.
If the SNP successfully advance on both Labour and Lib Dems, pushing the Lib Dems below 45 MPs, it may be that the SNP is the only route to a coalition for either Labour or the Tories. Iain Anderson and David Torrance caution against concluding an agreement couldn’t be reached between the Tories and the SNP. But it wouldn’t be easy, nor would it be for Miliband if Labour does have most MPs. Nonetheless, the probability of the SNP being in government is higher than any single party forming a majority government. Some form of rapprochement with the likes of Douglas Carswell may also be considered by the Tories.
3.) Strategies for minority government are needed – which, given the provisions of the Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA), may endure
Lack of Lib Dem MPs and the difficulty for unionist parties in finding coalition agreement with the SNP may make minority government the only option. FTPA means that the governing party would need a two-thirds majority of MPs to call an election before May 2020. Favourable polls may make this attractive but facing such polls, the opposition would be unlikely to vote with them. A two-thirds majority may, then, be a bridge too far.