Sunday, March 14, 2010

Don't panic! The Ins and outs of a hung parliament

Reading the press over the last couple of weeks anyone would think that after election day Westminster will be obliterated by some gigantic trans London hyper-bypass.

In contrast, I would suggest that a deep breath and brief wipe down with your handy travel towel will reassure you that a Hung Parliament is really nothing to be worried about. Not only would it be mostly harmless, but would be beneficial for our democracy and raise the tone of political debate significantly above some of the current Vogon Poetry we hear.

It's true that the financial markets (and everyone else for that matter) don't like uncertainty and that a power vacuum could be problematic. However, before you reach for the panic cord (probably located in your nearest disabled toilet) let's briefly reach for the mathematical light switch and then the likely senario.

There's 650 seats up for grabs, so the winning post for a simple majority and the ability to govern unaided is 650 /2 + 1 = 326 seats. However a majority of anything under 20 is considered extremely shaky because some MPs are independently minded / disloyal pains in the backside, depending on your point of view. The following shows the state of the current parliament where Labour have a safe majority of 66. (click on charts to enlarge)

Based on the current polls the Conservatives are likely to end up with the largest number of seats, but not enough to have a simple majority. The pie could divide something like this leaving the Conservatives a few seats short and gain support from independents or Northern Ireland Parties;

or more like this when they'll need to look to the Lib Dems.

Initially, the incumbent prime minister has a chance to try and stay in office. When another party's got an absolute majority, it's obvious they won't be able to, so they quit. If there's a hung parliament this isn't so clear which is why it's important that Nick Clegg has said
"The party which gets the strongest mandate from the voters will have the moral authority to be the first to seek to govern."
This indicates that Clegg will try and do a deal with the largest single party first, which at the moment looks reasonably certain to be the Tories.

Nick Clegg is unlikely to go into a full blown coalition with either the Tories or Labour as that would tie his hands to publicly supporting policies and programmes that would be unpopular with his support base. The Liberals are terrified of their distinct identity being subsumed into one of the two larger parties and that could cause lasting damage.

Instead the Lib Dems could agree to support a Tory minority administration on key pieces of legislation, such as an emergency budget and a change to the voting system.

This piecemeal approach would prevent Lib Dems from holding ministerial posts (Vince Cable would miss out on the trappings of being Chancellor of the Exchequer), but mean that they held ongoing influence on what got through parliament rather than negotiating a programme at the start.

This route also has the major advantage of being quicker to sort out because there's less to agree on up front. The parties will be under pressure to agree something quickly, especially on the economy in the name of stability. The outline of an agreement would be there within a couple of days and even with complex internal Lib Dem procedures it could be signed and sealed in a week to days.

The Lib Dems wouldn't hold all the cards. If they pushed things too far the Conservatives might gain Labour support for some measures, leaving the Lib Dems sidelined and looking like a child hitting out in a tantrum in a room full of older boys. If the Conservatives felt that the other parties were blocking a popular key reform they could call an election which would essentially be a referendum on an issue of the Tories choosing.

In practice a minority government is only likely to last for a year or 18 months before this happens or the government falls apart and loses a vote of no confidence. Another General Election would be called and the public would have the chance to pass judgment on how the parties had coped with the new arrangement.

A Hung Parliament wouldn't be a big surprise and many other countries across Europe manage them constantly. The parties will know that negotiations need to happen swiftly to maintain their own confidence and authority. It is perfectly reasonable to run the government as a minority administration for a short period of time, with key legislation gaining support from other parties.

So relax, keep your slippers and dressing gown on and Don't Panic.

Sorry about the lack of numbers on the pie charts - they should be there but the computer has defeated me for this evening.
15/3/10 - thanks to 'two''s comment I have ammended this post in the paragraph 'Initially the incumbent prime minister'


  1. I'm sure I read somewhere that there's a clause in our constitution which hands first attempt at forming a coalition to the party that has called the general election - Labour, in this year's instance. Crazy though this sounds, it would mean that Gordon Brown could form a Labour minority goverment in a coalition with the LibDems. It is this possibility that so scares the markets. This is because a Lab-Lib coalition would be marked by market-interference policies. However, the Tory free-market ethos is more likely to translate into policies that give freedom for the markets to sort themselves out in the next few years.

  2. Thanks two for your correction, you're right - I may need to ammend my post slightly. The incumbent prime minister does not have to resign immediately, but can try and form an administration.

    That's why it's significant that Nick Clegg said that "The party which gets the strongest mandate from the voters will have the moral authority to be the first to seek to govern."

    This suggests that Nick Clegg would be more likely to do a deal with the largest party (probably by seats, but could be by share of vote), which given current polls will be fairly clearly the Tories.