It’s a really interesting question – not only is an immense amount riding on this election, but the fixed term parliament law means the next five years is probably not what we think it is going to be…
Unless the pollsters are hugely wrong then there is going to be a hung parliament, with neither Labour nor the Conservatives winning an overall majority.
So what happens then?
1) David Cameron tries to form a Government
The first thing that will happen is that David Cameron will try and form the next government. As incumbent has every right to try – first dibs, if you like.
Almost every side has ruled out any sort of coalition, but what Cameron needs is not partners, but votes. He can get these from the LibDems, possibly Ukip, and the Ulster Unionists.
The magic number he has to reach will be about 323 (Sinn Fein don’t take their seats)
If the Conservatives get somewhere in the 280s, as predicted, and the LibDems get 35, with the Unionists’ 8, then he’s fine – 285+35+8 = 328.
However, if the Conservatives get fewer than 280, or the LibDems get 25ish, then it should be impossible for Cameron to get a majority for his Queen’s speech. In which case, Labour have a chance to try and form a government.
2) Labour’s minority government
Labour are currently on track to get between 255-270 seats. Unless they get hugely more than that – ie nearly 300, then they will be reliant on the SNP and the LibDems to vote in favour.
So why not a coalition of SNP, Labour, and LibDems? Lots of reasons:
First, it is simply not in the SNPs interest to have a coalition, having seen what happened to the LibDems. The only thing they could get out of a coalition is a promise of cancelling Trident and another referendum, and that’s not going to happen.
Second, it’s not in Labour’s interests to do so. The SNP will have to back almost every labour vote, or else explain to their constituents why they voted down a Labour government, or policies which are in their own manifesto.
Third, LibDems have categorically said they will not form a coalition when there’s any sort of agreement with the SNP, and Labour will need their votes too.
Fourth, if Labour said they were going to form any agreement with the SNP, they would lose every seat they had south of Manchester. The Tories have done a great negative job on how they paint the SNP, and the reason they have been able to is in part because of how similar the SNP policies are to Labour policies. When the only difference is Trident and Independence, then those are two great dog-whistles to blow.
3) When the bough breaks
Personally, whether it’s Conservative or Labour, I can’t see this being stable government. I don’t think people have quite realised what unstable government might be like – we were spared it last time round with the Coalition. But economically and politically, it may not be pretty.
Now years ago, if a government was struggling to get legislation through, or if it was defeated in a vote of no confidence, parliament was dissolved and a General Election held.
But if that happens this time, that’s not the end of parliament.
4) My go next
In order for there to be a dissolution of parliament before the end of the fixed term, 2/3 of parliament have to agree to it – basically both Labour and the Conservatives both have to agree to go to the country.
So it has to be in both the interest of Labour and the Tories to go to the country.
Say Labour get in and they find it unworkable, because they cannot get the co-operation they need from the LibDems and SNPs. They have their budget voted down, their policies, law after law, voted down.
If the Labour party have a vote of no confidence against them, it does not mean a General Election – it means that Cameron will then have a chance to form a government.
The date of the next General election is Thursday May 7th, 2020, unless 2/3rds of the politicians vote for it.
But why wouldn’t they all vote for dissolution, if it was obvious that the incumbent government couldn’t carry on?
There are lots of reasons.
5) Lame Duck parliament
Let’s say that the Labour party isn’t able to govern properly, and wants to go to the country. Say for example, that a Labour government doesn’t manage to get enough votes to vote through their budget.
There’s nothing they can do. They can’t even necessarily demit office.
One person who understands this is Nichola Sturgeon, who said tonight that she could vote down a Labour budget, without also voting for No Confidence. Even if the Labour party themselves voted that they had no confidence in themselves, unless the Tories and the SNP also voted for it, they would stay in power.
So if there is a Labour government who cannot get through a single piece of legislation including a budget, the SNP with the Tories agreement, could keep them in office, nominally in power but in reality with no power, unable to get anything through, until such a point as the SNP and the Tories decided it was the right time to go to the electorate. Or the Tories could keep them there themselves, making Labour look more and more ridiculous until they had done themselves so much damage that the Conservatives were confident of an overall majority.
That is the great danger of the Fixed Term Parliament act that the Conservatives and Lib Dems voted through. It was designed with Coalitions in mind, but the meltdown of the LibDems has made that all but impossible.
It will be interesting, and possibly troubling, to see what lies ahead in the next week/weeks/months/years. I just hope that if Labour do get in in some form, the first thing they do is to change the legislation regarding fixed term parliaments Act. It will take more than one parliament, but the sooner they begin the better.