Opinion polls over the last few weeks suggest that no parliamentary party will have an overall majority in the Westminster parliament; we will have a ‘hung parliament’. What then are the consequences? Who will govern, and how?
It’s useful to go back a few steps in the process. Each constituency votes for a member to represent them in parliament using the first past the post system; there is only one MP per constituency. The MP may be a member of a political party, or may be an independent. Though our MP may be beholden to a political party, we do not directly elect the Prime Minister unless we live in the constituency where the contenders are MPs—and none of us in N Ireland do.
Note the difference between a delegate and a representative. A delegate is one with a fixed and limited mandate for action; a representative goes to ‘represent’ our views, to speak for us, to act in our best interests, but we leave it entirely up to him or her how such representation might happen, what means can be used; the representative is his or her own person, over whom the electors have no control, other than by not voting for them in future. This ‘lack of accountability’ may change in the future.
In the past, the political party with an overall majority was the ‘winner’, and the leader of that party became Prime Minister. Strictly, it wasn’t because the party had more MPs than other parties, rather it was because that party enjoyed the confidence of the House of Commons—by having a majority of MPs. Having the confidence of the House of Commons is what actually gives the Prime Minister (and his administration) its legitimacy. Making sure that the MPs in a party stick to the ‘party line’ is the job of the ‘Whips’, though these people no longer use physical means (alas!), rather they rely on bribes, threats and what amounts at times to emotional blackmail. The Labour government fell in 1979 after a vote of no confidence was passed by 311 votes to 310. On that occasion, Mr Frank Maguire, the independent MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and a very sporadic attender at Westminster, famously ’abstained in person’. The Prime Minister, Mr James Callaghan, then advised the Queen to hold a general election.
At present there are no MPs; the House of Commons has been dissolved. However, the administration remains in place until superseded by another. Though conventional, it is not constitutionally required that the Prime Minister, or any Minister be an MP. In the 1964 general election, Mr Patrick Gordon Walker wasn’t returned as MP for Smethwick; nevertheless, Harold Wilson appointed him Foreign Secretary. However, after loosing a by-election in early 1965, Mr Gordon Walker resigned. His problem was essentially that he could not be called to account by the House of Commons.
By convention, after parliament has been dissolved, the government is in a state of ‘purdah’ meaning that while routine business can still be continued, no significant new activities can be enjoined, as any future government ought not to be hampered by decisions made late in the day by their predecessors. (If, let’s say, war were to be declared by an enemy during purdah, and the government had to respond, it’s likely that the leader of the opposition and other senior politicians would have to be involved.)
Mr David Cameron is still Prime Minister, and will be on Friday 8 May and onwards if Mr Milliband does not enjoy an absolute majority of members. By convention, the incumbent Prime Minister has first go at forming a new administration, even if an opposition leader has more MPs. This was the case in 2010, when Mr Gordon Brown had fewer MPs than Mr Cameron; he remained in post until it was clear that he could not form an administration that would have the confidence of the House of Commons.
How many MPs are required for a majority? There are 650 MPs in total. Sein Féin do not take their seats, meaning there likely to be around 645 MPs who could vote. The Speaker by convention does not vote, unless he must give a casting vote, when it can be expected that he would retain the status quo ante under Speaker Denison’s rules. There are three deputy Speakers, so that 641 MPs can vote; half of this +1 is 321. (Other sources suggest 323, ignoring the deputy Speakers.)
Opinion polls have a margin of error of about ±3%. At present, the general impression is that the Conservatives will have around 280 MPs, with Labour on about 270. The LiberalDemocrats may have 25 members, the Scottish National Party perhaps 45-50. DUP might have 8-10 members, UKIP perhaps one or two. All these numbers are estimates at this time; some sources suggest the Conservatives could have 290 seats.
No party by itself will have overall ‘control’. Parties must look towards coalitions, deals, ad hoc agreements, and ‘confidence and supply’ arrangements. Confidence and supply means a loose agreement, where members will support the larger party on a vote of confidence, or on a ‘supply’ vote—that is a vote on money issues. The UK must vote for a new finance bill—the budget—every year; the previous years provisions do not automatically carry forwards. (This rather odd arrangement seems to go back to the time of Magna Carta or thereabouts, when the Barons were keen to limit the power of the sovereign, requiring taxation etc to be on an annual basis.)
We can therefore expect a period of horse trading and haggling, of positioning for power when the final head count is known on Friday. It might well take some time for clarity. At present, even with LibDem and DUP (and perhaps UKIP) support, the Conservatives will struggle to reach the ‘magic’ number of MPs to ensure a majority. Mr Milliband likewise would need to look to the LibDems and SDLP, though these won’t give him a majority. What then will he do with the Scottish National Party? A formal coalition seems very unlikely, as the SNP have independence for Scotland on their agenda, and the other parties don’t. An informal agreement of some sort?
Should Mr Milliband, despite coming second in the head count, become Prime Minister, with the ‘support’ of other parties, and ‘survive’ a vote of no confidence, his administration will be entirely legitimate, despite what his political enemies might say. To repeat: the legitimacy of an administration requires the ability to win a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, and on nothing else. Further, the total number of votes for any party, which might well not be reflected in their total of MPs, is of no relevance in a vote of confidence.
Those that cannot form an administration go into opposition; the largest party is usually called ‘the official opposition’. Opposition is an unfortunate name, for the job of opposition is to hold the government to account, and to present itself as an alternative; it is not to oppose everything.
Things are now complicated by the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011. This limits the power of the incumbent Prime Minister, who cannot call an election at a time of his choosing. Further, even if a Prime Minister fails to obtain a vote of confidence, there is a period of 14 days in which an alternative administration can be formed, and be tested by a vote of confidence. In the past, a defeat on the Queen’s Speech could be expected to trigger a fresh election; no longer. The Act also allows an election to be called if a motion before the House of Commons specifically calls for a dissolution, and is passed by at least a two-thirds majority of MPs. The Queen’s Speech, the formal opening of the new parliament, is to be Wednesday 27 May. This means that the first administration must be in place by that time.
Even before polling day in 2010, David Cameron realised that he would not achieve an overall majority, so the Conservatives began preparations for coalition discussions with other parties, principally the LibDems. This time, there has been no significant change in the opinion polls over the electioneering period. It is beyond belief that the leaders of the three main parties have not laid preparations for coalition talks and discussions with others, no matter what they say about striving for a majority, the need for ’stability’ and scaremongering about ‘chaos’.
Even if the details aren’t clear just now, the outlines are; a period of intense politicking which may determine who leads an administration and who doesn’t; perhaps a period when votes of confidence are won and lost; and, so some are already suggesting, the grisly, ghastly, gruesome spectre of a second election. And a second election in short order isn’t likely to change things that much. But we, the voters, will have to endure more electioneering, posturing, dissimulation, prevarication, deceit, bribes, threats, equivocation, sound bites, ‘spin’, and the entire apparatus that surrounds politics today. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had more than enough this time. And we in N Ireland will have it again next year in the Assembly elections.
The above is my understanding of the present constitutional position. I’ve relied on several blogs and Google searches for information; any errors are my responsibility. Particularly useful was this blog (via @loveandgarbage), which also has links to the Fixed Term Act and to the Cabinet Office Manual, which describes the workings of the UK ‘constitution’.
Addendum: why is a vote of confidence so important? The basis is historical. In the past, the sovereign ruled ‘by right divine’, something God-given, that is he or she was an absolute monarch who could do exactly as he or she pleased.
The first attempt to change this was the stand-off between King John and the barons, resulting in Magna Carta. The peasantry didn’t get a look in. Magna Carta was soon ‘abandoned’, though various other charters were established.
Matters really came to a head in the reign of Charles II; the question was then, who was supreme, the King or Parliament. It took a civil war—the War of the Three Kingdoms, as the English Civil War is politically correctly known today—to determine that Parliament had the last word.
The powers of the sovereign were gradually removed; today, Elizabeth II is no more in reality than a figurehead. (The last time when she exercised political power was when Harold McMillan resigned. The conservative party had no mechanism to elect a successor, rather the successor ’emerged’. Elizabeth was then advised that Alec Douglas Home had ’emerged’, so she sent for him. Since then, all political parties elect their leader.)
So, it’s now clearly established that Parliament is sovereign, and its members guard this jealously. The Prime Minister only holds this office by virtue of the permission of Parliament, as expressed—if necessary—through a confidence vote.