United Kingdom

What happens if nobody can form a government?

 

 

The failure of the last Parliament to deal with the issue of English votes for English laws means that we may well be about to see the West Lothian Question with tartan knobs on it.

While it is one thing for Scottish Labour MPs to vote on English laws that do not affect their own constituents, at least everyone can have a say on their party’s programme at the ballot box. B

ut that is not true about the SNP manifesto, unveiled in Edinburgh yesterday, which is why the argument that England will just have to put up with what Scotland has long endured is rubbish.

The Conservatives have always contested elections in Scotland, even if their fortunes have waned considerably since a time when they controlled half the seats.

Even as recently as the Eighties there were more than 20 Tory MPs in Scotland, and at the last general election the Conservatives polled 413,000 votes to the SNP’s 490,00 – not the massive difference the Nats would have us believe.

In any case, it is a complete myth that Scotland never gets the government it votes for. Since 1945 the UK has been governed on two out of three occasions by the party that got the most votes in Scotland. That is the same proportion as England, which has 10 times the population.

However, the collapse of Labour and the transfer of its vote to the SNP has utterly changed the political and constitutional landscape . Issues of legitimacy and democratic accountability are now to the fore in a way that scarcely seemed possible just a year ago.

In Whitehall, officials who may have to deal with an almighty political imbroglio after May 7 are gaming a variety of possible outcomes.

No one knows what is going to happen and everyone fears the worst because our uncodified constitution (which works well enough when all its component parts are functioning in harmony) could become a millstone around our necks when something totally unexpected occurs.

The history books are being scoured for precedents. Over the weekend, various commentators compared this coming election to 1992, when the Tories snatched victory from the flames of seemingly inevitable defeat; to 1918, when Sinn Fein destroyed the Irish Parliamentary Party and won 73 seats in Ireland which they did not take up; to 1910 when the aforementioned Irish Parliamentary Party won 74 seats and propped up Asquith’s Liberal government in exchange for home rule legislation; and to 1892, when the Irish also held the balance of power and used it to nationalist ends.

I want to enter a plea for January 1924, the last time the party that won the most seats and votes did not form the government. At the election the previous month, Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives had 258 seats while Labour had 191 and the Liberals 158. An overall majority required 309 seats in the 616-seat Commons.

Baldwin was prime minister and met the Commons in the ultimately forlorn hope that the Liberals might keep him in office but lost a vote on the King’s Speech and resigned. Conceivably, something similar could happen on May 7.

As things stand there is every likelihood that the Conservatives will have more seats and votes than Labour – by piling them up in England – but not the 326 seats to control the Commons and little prospect of cobbling together a coalition to get over the line. What does David Cameron do then?

He remains Prime Minister until he stands down, just as Gordon Brown did in 2010 when he stayed put for five days with far fewer seats than the Tories. Mr Cameron could challenge the Commons to vote him down when it next meets on May 27 or go to the Queen and tender his resignation (which would be curtains for him personally).

If Mr Cameron did decide to “do a Baldwin” there is much speculation about the Queen’s role. Her courtiers understandably do not want the monarch dragged into a political mess where legitimacy is in question.

Peter Riddell, the director of the Institute for Government, a constitutional think tank, recently proferred the idea that in such circumstances the “Queen’s speech” would be delivered by the Leader of the Lords, Baroness Stowell . On the two occasions, 1959 and 1963, when the Queen has not been able to make the speech herself because she was pregnant, it was read out by the Lord Chancellor of the day, which is no longer possible because of another piece of Labour constitutional vandalism. Lady Stowell, however, may have to fight it out with Baroness D’Souza, the Lords Speaker, for the honour of standing in for Her Majesty. 

A substitute may also be needed if there is uncertainty over Mr Miliband’s ability to form a government. After all, he will be relying on the support of some 40 or 50 Nationalist MPs with whom he has flatly refused to deal. But a minority government does not need a formal pact to sustain it in office, just the votes, and Nicola Sturgeon has all but guaranteed them to Labour.

If neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Miliband were able to put together a viable government, a second election would normally follow; but the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 complicates matters .

It provides for a dissolution of Parliament only when there is a specific vote of no confidence in the government or if two thirds of all MPs vote for an election. This makes the prospect of another early general election less likely. In any case, the parties may have little appetite for one given the expense and the prospect of losing support in a fresh contest.

Without a dissolution we would have a legislature but no government, a bit like Belgium, where the prime minister resigned in April 2010 and no new parliamentary majority could be established for almost two years.

The country was run by a former prime minister brought out of retirement and a caretaker administration. It didn’t do them much harm. A report by academics at the University of Leuven noted that the government continued to make “legitimate decisions” on urgent matters of public finance and national security while MPs squabbled.

They concluded that “in mature democracies, a power vacuum is taken care of in a constructive, creative, and responsible way”. Do we have such virtues? We might be about to find out very soon.

One thing is clear: a minority Labour government, with fewer seats than the Tories, running the country while in thrall to a nationalist party that has only 2 or 3 per cent of the total UK vote, would test our constitutional structures to breaking point, and maybe beyond.

More than that, it could test our creaking, centuries-old Union to destruction. That’s something to mull over this St George’s Day.

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