It may seem a little odd to be writing about what might happen after the general election several days before polling day. But as it has long looked almost certain that nether of the main parties will secure an overall majority, speculation has been going on for a fair while anyway. And it is possible that some of the remaining undecided voters may well take such calculations into account when casting their vote.
So let’s assume a set of results and run through some scenarios of what might happen next. There are 650 MPs to be elected on Thursday, so in theory 326 votes are needed to secure a parliamentary majority. The number might actually be slightly lower, as the 4 or 5 likely Sinn Fein MPs will not take the oath required to sit as an MP and will therefore not be entitled to vote.
Here’s a possible outcome to give us some numbers. It’s not necessarily a prediction, just some figures that appear reasonable based on the polls, and with numbers that make the maths easy. Labour or the Tories may end up with a few more seats than the other but unless there is a massive swing it actually doesn’t change the arithmetic too much.
Lib Dem: 30
We begin on Friday morning with David Cameron still Prime Minister. He remains in office for now, even if his party has fewer seats than Labour, and can still try to form some sort of coalition. Who with? Well, from the numbers it seems he won’t be able to command enough votes with his current partners the Lib Dems, even if agreement could be reached – just 305 on these figures. The SNP have said they won’t deal with the Tories and the only Others who might be interested are some of the Ulster Unionists and any MPs that UKIP might secure. But he would, it seems, still be well below the majority required.
So David Cameron is unable to form a coalition. In theory he could still present a Queen’s Speech to parliament and wait for the other parties to defeat it. Or he could simply admit defeat and resign.
In formal terms, he would now go to see the Queen and hand in his notice, advising her to turn to Ed Miliband next. There is a massive issue here about the role of an unelected hereditary head of state in all of this, but that’s one for another day. Note that Miliband could, in this situation, be asked to attempt to form a government – he doesn’t have to have any sort of deal put in place in advance.
But could Labour actually form a government that commands majority support in the Commons?
Well, a coalition again looks unlikely based on these numbers. Even if a deal could be reached with Nick Clegg (assuming he is still leader of what’s left of the Lib Dem parliamentary party) we still get to 305. And if we add in the likely 3 or 4 SDLP members they are still short of a majority.
That brings us to the Nationalists in Scotland and Wales. We know Ed Miliband has said that he won’t do a deal with them. So if we assume he will stand by this, a Labour led coalition that secures the support of a majority of MPs simply can’t happen.
Again, Labour could, as has actually been suggested, go ahead and present a Queen’s Speech to parliament. The SNP and Plaid Cymru block of 50 or so MPs would hold the balance. Support Labour and they would win the vote. Vote against and they will lose. Abstain and it would come down to whatever the Lib Dems might decide to do.
Now this is where politics rather than arithmetic makes it all very interesting. The calculations for the parties involved would be complex. Would a second election be best for their party? How might voters react to being asked to go to the polls again? Might they apportion blame for failure to produce a government?
How would the SNP thinking go? Would they support a Labour government in principle and then try to amend its legislation to make it more to their liking? Decide to abstain, staying out of the argument entirely? Or vote against the formation of a Labour government and hope that another election might be to their benefit?
It’s a difficult one to call. Given that the SNP is presently on a high and likely to win the vast majority of seats in Scotland it could hardly believe that another poll would offer increased opportunities or too many extra seats. But it could argue that its position would be stronger in relation to Labour as it had proven the only way Ed Miliband could become PM would be with their support. Or would the SNP be accused of risking another Tory led government if it voted down a potential Labour one?
But then the opposite side of that coin is to consider the position in England – would some voters in a second election become more likely to support Labour if it argued that it had acted in the UK’s best interests rather than its own by refusing a deal with the SNP? So by not supporting Labour the SNP could actually strengthen Ed Miliband’’s hand and make a majority Labour government more likely in a second election.
Gets complex, doesn’t it?
The salient fact to remember though when it comes to working out what the SNP might decide to do is that its primary interest isn’t what happens at Westminster. Its one political goal is Scottish independence and everything else is viewed through the prism of what makes that more or less likely.
So what might that tell us? Would the SNP feel that backing a Labour government and seeking to influence its plans might be seen as a responsible move, one that would produce political capital down the line? Or would they believe that forcing a second general election would help to show the UK political system is a bad light – after all, minority government was made to work in Scotland?
Whatever happens on Thursday evening, and well into Friday morning, will only be the beginnings of the story of this general election. It will be days and perhaps even weeks before it is clear exactly which party, or parties, will govern. And – if there is no formal coalition in place – any new government may struggle to get its legislation through. No overall majority could mean defeats on its budget or on key bills. That could trigger a no confidence vote.
So, whatever might happen on Thursday, don’t bet against there being a second general election long before the one currently scheduled for 2020.
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