The UK prime minister fired the opening shots of the 2015 election campaign on Monday 5 January, a full 120 days before polling day on 7 May. The British do not like long election campaigns. Most commentators are already bored by the big party’s slanging match, but they are fascinated by what the election result might be. Should we end up with another hung parliament, the backdoor deal-making could be much more protracted, and with the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act in place, interminable.
Britain’s three largest political parties are facing an unprecedented insurgency from smaller parties. The Liberal Democrats got 22 per cent of the national vote in 2010. They have been achieving around just 7 per cent in recent polls, though they will tend to hold more seats than this suggests. The Greens have only one MP to the Lib Dems’ 57, but regularly poll ahead of them. The Scottish National Party (SNP) failed to secure independence in the September referendum, but now have the third largest party membership in the UK, having increased by more than 400 per cent. Opinion polls also indicate that the two main parties’ support has shrunk since 2010. Both Mssrs Miliband and Cameron expect this to change in time for polling day, but the spread betting and Electoral Calculus don’t raise much expectation of change.
Most striking has been the success of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Last year it gained the largest number of UK MEPs following elections to the European Parliament. They have won two parliamentary by-elections, following the high-profile defection of two Conservative MPs. UKIP only got 3.1 per cent of the vote in 2010. In 2015, 10 per cent does not seem unreasonable. Once mocked by the Prime Minister as a “bunch of fruitcakes and loonies,” they may not secure MPs, but they could change the outcome in a significant number of seats, because all the indications are that UKIP takes twice as many votes from Conservative than Labour in Conservative marginal seats.
But the SNP and Greens threaten Labour. In 2010, 41 of Labour’s 258 seats came from Scotland, and the fallout from the referendum has proved politically disastrous.
Labour maintains the advantage from the current distribution of seats. The 2010 coalition agreement committed to create constituencies of more equal size, but the Lib Dems reneged on the deal. Incumbent governments hardly ever increase their share of the vote. We Conservatives are striving to be the exception which proves the rule, but present polling would be likely to result in Labour being the largest party, perhaps even with a (small) overall majority.
The betting markets set the chances of a hung parliament at 80 per cent. Bookies offer 6:1 odds against a government with an overall majority. 60 per cent of voters would prefer that, reminding us of Disraeli’s dictum “that England does not love coalitions.”
Before the last election in 2010, the then Cabinet Secretary began putting together a series of new ‘rules on government’ in the draft Cabinet Manual. Many commentators saw this as an attempt to codify the UK’s largely unwritten constitution into one document. This is nonsense, because no court would attach much legal authority to a manual written by civil servants, but it has changed the previous conventions around what happens in the case of a hung parliament.
When the Conservatives under Edward Heath failed to emerge as the largest party in the first 1974 general election, as soon as it was clear he could not obtain enough support from other parties to survive in office, he tendered his resignation to Her Majesty the Queen. She then invited Harold Wilson to establish a minority Government. The Cabinet Manual has subtly changed this expectation so that “the incumbent government remains in Office… [and] is entitled [my emphasis] to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons.” Moreover, there is an expectation that senior civil servants will facilitate any negotiations between the parties. Unlike in 2010, we also now have the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which sets the date for the next election five years hence. This has never been tested, but it could be impossible to call an earlier election.
So what kind of government could Britain end up with? At the time of writing, Ed Miliband has refused to rule out the possibility of working with the SNP, even though they are fundamentally opposed to the Union of Scotland and the rest of the UK, as well as being opposed to Britain’s nuclear deterrent, which is based in Scotland.
We must hope that neither Labour nor Conservative negotiators would do a deal with the SNP that threatens to disrupt the renewal of Britain’s continuous-at-sea nuclear deterrent. At a time of considerable international tension with Russia, and with upheaval and cost-cutting of Britain’s defence budget and within other NATO states, the stability of the UK’s nuclear deterrent has become more important.
Under this new ‘six-party’ system, there is a real possibility that a future government will depend upon more than two parties. It took only five days for negotiations to produce a government in 2010, but this year it might take much longer. And if the incumbent prime minister is feeling vulnerable, then he has a vested interest in a stalemate so that he can stay on.