It appears to be more than a wobble. Discussion of a traditional mid-election blip in polls for the Conservatives has developed into predictions (notably by YouGov) of a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party. However, other polls still indicate that a Conservative majority remains the most likely result next week. Nevertheless, it is worth discussing what could happen in a hung parliament. In a hung parliament, the rules on government formation are well established. The Prime Minister is only expected to resign when it is clear that an alternative government has emerged. However, the parties would be expected to conduct negotiations to see what shape an alternative may take. In 2010, the fact that only an agreement between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives could deliver a majority meant that was always going to be the most likely result.
YouGov has suggested that the result would be –
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If a hung parliament does occur, no one is predicting that Labour would be the largest party, making these numbers a good scenario to work through. Although 326 is seen to be the magic number as that guarantees an overall majority, a government can survive if they just fall short of this. Ordinarily, the Speaker and his two deputies do not vote, and Sinn Féin do not take up their seats in Westminster. Assuming Sinn Féin returns four MPs (as they did in 2015), this makes the target 322. With this as the target, there are two main possibilities.
Conservative & Northern Irish Unionist MPs
The Conservatives could govern as a minority government with the support of the Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland in a confidence and supply agreement. In 2015, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party each won eight and two seats respectively. These estimates would mean that the Conservatives are just short of the revised target of 322 by two votes. In such circumstances, the Unionists would be expected to support the Conservatives, and the Ulster Unionists propped up the fag end of Major’s government as it stuttered towards the 1997 election. The sticking point would be the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, as both Unionist parties would seek assurances that the open border is retained and that Brexit would not otherwise compromise the Peace Process. Furthermore, given Jeremy Corbyn’s “past” as regards the IRA, it would be inconceivable for the Unionist parties to form an agreement with Labour. The benefit of this arrangement is that it would have relatively few moving parts.
Progressive Alliance and EVEL
“A Progressive Alliance”, would see Labour and the SNP as the main players. These two parties working together would still not be enough for an overall majority. Any agreement would be likely to require a commitment from Jeremy Corbyn for a date for the second Scottish Independence Referendum (“IndyRef 2”). Corbyn has hinted that he would be willing to make such a concession. Other possible parties, include the support of the Liberal Democrats, whose primary demand would presumably be a referendum on the Brexit deal, and any Green and Plaid Cymru MPs. The difficulty would be the constant negotiation required to keep all parties satisfied. A serious constitutional difficulty is English Votes for English Laws (“EVEL”). EVEL is the procedure in the House of Commons by which a law that affects only England needs the approval of a majority of English MPs. The problem for the “Progressive Alliance” is that it would only have a minority of English MPs as a majority will be Conservative. This was the case in the last two elections (in 2010 the Conservatives majority in England was 63, in 2015 it was 105) and are clearly on course to do similar at this election. Given that Labour’s flagship issues such as the abolition of tuition fees are English only issues, this “Progressive Alliance” will lack the English majority it requires to get these proposals through the House of Commons using the EVEL procedure.
Another consideration against a progressive alliance are the positions of some Labour MPs. John Woodcock has gone on record as saying that despite standing as a candidate for Labour, he would not support any motion that would make Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister. Other Labour MPs are likely to find themselves in a similar position and have a serious and difficult decision to make. These MPs could be critical if the parliamentary arithmetic is as tight as YouGov suggest.
Back to the 1970’s?
The closest parallel to all of this is 1974 when Edward Heath called an election asking the question, ‘Who Governs’? This led to Heath losing his majority, and then losing office after failing to reach an agreement with the Liberals led by Jeremy Thorpe. Harold Wilson led a minority government for Labour, calling a further election after in October. This resulted in Wilson gaining a majority of 3, with Labour managing to remain in government four and half years with support from the support of the Liberal Party (the Lib/Lab pact), the Ulster Unionists, and the Scottish Nationalist Party and Plaid Cymru. This government fell after the nationalists withdrew their support, and the government lost a vote of no confidence in 1979.
The great irony was the concern that Jeremy Corbyn was taking the country back to the 1970’s. If a hung parliament is the result next week, the person taking the country back to the 1970’s is not Jeremy Corbyn, it is Theresa May.