New hung parliament rules

I was on hand with oranges and hot towels today at the birth of a new piece of the British Constitution – the first steps in making public how a new government is actually formed, particularly in a Hung Parliament. Constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor told the Justice Committee hearing that there had been a “lack of explanation” about what could happen and “the public has a right to know what the position is.”. So it was nice of them to tell us at last, after almost three hundred years of British Prime Ministers.
The great event took place in the same Commons committee room where Parnell was voted down as leader of the Irish nationalist party. The Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell was announcing publication of part of the first ever Cabinet Manual laying down guidelines for what would happen if no party leader had a clear majority. People unfamiliar with the great unwritten British constitution would be bemused at the significance being placed on such an obvious move. The fear of market jitters was one they wished to quell, as former top mandarin Andrew Turnbull observed. His successor Sir Gus was keen to play this down: markets would factor in the possibility of a short period of uncertainty after the election if the outcome was positive.

“It won’t come out of the blue. What the markets will be looking for is the achievement of a government that is stable and can carry through the key decisions needed,” he stressed. “If it takes a little bit longer to achieve that stability I think they will be patient.”

Just for the record, much of it is about protecting the Queen from having to take any decisions at all and leaving it up to the politicians to sort it out between them. And before anybody tells me, yes I do know that the Dail elects the Taioseach and that three weeks is probably a better breathing space before a new government takes office than the about three hours’ frantic rush in the UK. All pretty obvious stuff you might think. But let’s wait for happens after 10 o’clock on election night and see if it’s rarefied or not.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London