British election: It’s all down to the cold arithmetic of the party seats

Mark Hennessy: Legitimacy could be a key question in government formation

‘This time, Nick Clegg has to make himself arithmetically relevant first. Before the campaign began, the Liberal Democrats believed they could win 30, or more seats. Today, quietly-voiced predictions have fallen back considerably.’ Above,  Clegg takes part in a special BBC Question Time programme with the three main party leaders appearing separately, on April 30th. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/WPA Pool /Getty Images

‘This time, Nick Clegg has to make himself arithmetically relevant first. Before the campaign began, the Liberal Democrats believed they could win 30, or more seats. Today, quietly-voiced predictions have fallen back considerably.’ Above, Clegg takes part in a special BBC Question Time programme with the three main party leaders appearing separately, on April 30th. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/WPA Pool /Getty Images

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Walter Harrison was a legendary Labour Party government whip under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, born into a hard school and famed for his willingness to use any means to keep MPs in line.

But even Harrison balked at bringing Sir Alfred Broughton, dying of cancer as he then was, to the House of Commons in March 1979 to fight off a motion of no confidence in Callaghan’s government tabled by Margaret Thatcher.

He considered it, though; even up to the point of checking whether Broughton’s vote could be counted if he could only make into the Houses of Parliament, but not into the crowded, chaotic voting lobbies.

The likes of Harrison could be needed once again, if a torrent of opinion polls are right in predicting that no-one party on its own will be able to command a majority in the Commons.

If so, there are many words that will be used to the point of extinction. Depending on the final arithmetic, the first of them could be “legitimacy” – even if use of the word displays in most cases – but not all – a failure to understand maths.

Privately, the Conservative Party believes legitimacy will become an issue, fuelled by the right-wing press, if it wins 15 seats more than Labour, but is, nevertheless, prevented from forming a government. Constitutionally, nothing backs up such arguments. Ramsey MacDonald formed Labour’s first administration in 1924 even though he came second to Stanley Baldwin, while minority governments were often the norm for much of the 19th century.

Five years on from the 2010 election, many Conservatives have still not come to terms with that result, continuing to believe that they were somehow deprived of a legitimate victory.

Cameron’s hopes

Today, Cameron’s hopes rest on increasing the Conservatives’ support in the last week largely on the back of English fears about the prospect of Scottish National Party influence.

Undoubtedly, the strategy is working, though it is impossible to say by how much; even if he has stored up problems about the existence of the United Kingdom that could haunt it for years.

However, he needs to seize Liberal Democrats seats in England, particularly in the west country to replace the ones he will undoubtedly lose in England to Labour, even if the latter is itself haemorrhaging support in Scotland.

The Liberal Democrats, even if they have been pushed into the background, are the key to the election: because they are likely to be the largest grouping that could swing behind either the Conservatives, or Labour.

The Scottish National Party, meanwhile, has said that it will back only Labour, though it continues to spat with Labour about the nature of the co-operation that would take place if Ed Miliband leads a minority government.

Some Conservatives argue that Miliband would not be able to take over as prime minister from Cameron unless he could show the queen that he has a workable majority – ie a coalition deal, or a looser arrangement with the SNP.

However, this is not what happened in 1924. Back then, MacDonald had nearly 70 fewer seats than Baldwin, but was able to oust the Conservatives even though he had no deal in place with the Liberals. Nor does it have to happen now. So far, the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg has had to play a careful hand, since he is trying to satisfy several audiences within his own ranks ever before he gets to deal with the British public at large.

Five years ago, he insisted that he had to deal first with the party with the most votes and seats – the Conservatives, then. It became known as “Clegg’s Law”. It had not legal standing then. Nor does it now.

Back then, it suited him since he wanted to put together a deal with the Conservatives, particularly after Cameron stole a march by making “a big, open and comprehensive” offer even before all the votes were counted. This time, Clegg has to make himself arithmetically relevant first. Before the campaign began, the Liberal Democrats believed they could win 30, or more seats. Today, quietly-voiced predictions have fallen back considerably.

If such be the case, then it is difficult to see how Cameron can make up the numbers, even with the Democratic Unionist Party – particularly since left-leaning Liberal Democrats say hell will freeze over before they touch them.

So far, however, it is not just the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats who are denying possible impending political realities. Labour, if it needs SNP votes, will have to reach some accommodation with them.

If that happens, the Conservatives will cry “foul”; even if that is unjustified. However, cries about legitimacy will come, too, from the UK Independence Party – which will get millions of votes, but a fraction of the SNP’s tally – and, to a lesser degree, from the Green Party. The SNP has less room for manoeuvre than some in its ranks think, if Labour plays smart and stays united this side of next May’s Holyrood election, since the SNP cannot behave like the Tea Party threatening Washington gridlock.

Undoubtedly, it would hold a strong hand. Votes of MPs are equal after all, even if some in England have begun to forget that fact in the hyperbole to be found in some near-hysterical quarters in London in recent days.

Minority administration

However, a minority administration led by Miliband will be backed by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – a Clegg creation, but one that could keep the Labour leader in power, if less able to govern, if he chooses his battles and gets lucky.

If it does hold the balance of power, the SNP could defeat Labour on legislation, but it would mean voting with the Conservatives – a toxic act in the world of Scottish politics. But Miliband will have to do a thousand small “deals” with the SNP – despite what he said in the final TV debate in Leeds on Thursday night, if the numbers require him to deal with them.

Or it could bring Labour down in a vote of no confidence, again with the Conservatives. Back in 1979, the SNP tried that with the Conservatives, losing all but two of its Commons seats in the subsequent election.

Scotland, however, has changed profoundly since the days when Walter Harrison worried whether Sir Alfred Broughton would get to Westminster alive; but the months ahead may require men and women capable of thinking very coldly, indeed. Mark Hennessy is London Editor

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