Talk of a hung parliament is heating up. “Coalition of chaos” warn the Conservatives. No deal with the SNP, says Keir Starmer. How would ihings play out in practice? Not as the Tories say. Here’s why.
In the run-up to the 2015 election, the Tories hope portrayed Ed Miliband, Labour’s then leader, as the likely poodle of the Scottish National Party. If Labour fell short of a majority, it would need SNP support to form a government. The “coalition of chaos” tactic was effective then; no wonder the Conservatives are now reviving it.
They are whistling for the moon. The main reason why the Conservative tactic is doomed to fail this time is that the rules have changed. Who changed them? Take a bow, Boris Johnson.
In 2015, the Fixed Term Parliament Act, passed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, was in force. A hung parliament would make it hard for a minority government to survive. It could not break deadlock at Westminster by holding an early second election. The prospect of defeat would force it to do a deal with other parties or give up power. Had Labour emerged from the 2015 election 20 or 30 seats short of a majority, it might well have had to negotiate with the SNP.
However, the Act has now been repealed. The old system is back. To see why this matters, suppose it’s the week after the next general election. The Conservatives have too few MPs to stay in office. The Prime Minister resigns. Even though Labour remains well short of a majority, the Queen has invited Starmer to form a government. The big questions of the week are: can it last, and if so on what terms?
The media report the twists and turns of the debate: the SNP demands a referendum on independence, while the Liberal Democrats make voting reform their condition for sustaining Labour in office.
Starmer says nothing publicly, but behind the scenes an emissary has contacted Buckingham Palace on his behalf. They want to know what Her Majesty would do if Starmer presented his programme to the new Parliament and is defeated. Would she grant his request for a fresh election, or turn him down and invite someone else to form a government?
If you think that scenario is just idle speculation, think again. It is essentially what happened in March 1974, when Edward Heath called a snap election, the outcome was a hung Parliament and Harold Wilson was invited to form a minority Labour government.
While the media pondered whether Wilson could govern at all, and if so how, his constitutional adviser, Lord Crowther-Hunt, contacted officials at Buckingham Palace and discussed the possibility of a second election. Their response was yes, if MPs rejected Wilson’s Queen’s Speech, Her Majesty would grant a dissolution. As Crowther-Hunt put it to me a few years later, the nub of their response was that a Prime Minister could call one election, but not two in quick succession. As Heath had called the first election, he could not defy the electorate’s verdict by demanding a rerun. However, as Wilson had arrived in Downing Street from four years in opposition, he had what Crowther-Hunt described to me as a dissolution in his knapsack.
The significance of Buckingham Place’s response is hard to overstate. It put the Tories at a huge tactical disadvantage. If they joined forces with the other non-Labour MPs to vote down the Queen’s Speech, they risked being blamed by voters for being bad losers and forcing a fresh contest that few voters wanted. A second election so soon after the first risked a landslide Conservative defeat. They quickly realised that they had no choice to abstain on the Queen’s Speech and let it pass – which it did with a majority of almost 300. Only the SNP opposed it. Wilson was able to govern with little difficulty for six months and then hold a fresh election at a time of his choosing. This time Labour did secure an overall majority, albeit of only three.
Now that the fixed-term Parliament law has been repealed, today’s rules are the same as in 1974. If the Conservatives are voted out of office, they will be in as weak a position as they were 48 years ago. This remains the case even if they are still the largest party. A minority Starmer government would be in a strong tactical position, despite the fact that the parliamentary arithmetic would seem to place him at the mercy of the SNP and/or Lib Dems.
In fact, as long as the Conservatives hold back – not least because they may well find themselves embroiled in a lengthy and bruising leadership contest – Starmer will get his way. The SNP and Lib Dems could not defeat a minority Labour government without Tory help; and lacking that help, they would have no bargaining power. There need be no “coalition of chaos” – or any other kind.
Starmer would of course be wise to govern consensually and avoid excessively divisive measures. But early bills to hold a Scottish referendum or change the system of electing MPs to Westminster? Forget them. Starmer would be able to concentrate on demonstrating that Labour has shed the last vestiges of the Corbyn and Momentum era, and that (as he might put it) Britain once again has an honest, competent and public-spirited Prime Minister. If he were to take on board some economic and social policies from the Lib Dems, it would be because he liked them, not because he was forced to adopt them.
Such a minority Labour government could not last a full five years, or anything like it. But nor would Starmer want it to. If and when the polls indicate that Labour has a solid and sustained lead, he would call a second election (possibly by proposing a Bill or a Budget that is popular with voters but anathema to the Conservative Party, and provoking them into defeating him in the Commons).
If he has judged things right – both his actions as Prime Minister and his timing of the second election – then he can look forward to five further years, or more, as the Prime Minister of a majority government.
And if he gets it wrong? What if the second election produces another hung parliament? Then Starmer loses the initiative. His knapsack would be empty. He may then need to negotiate with Ed Davey and Nicola Sturgeon (or whoever then leads their parties) if he is to stay if office. If he fails, then the (newish?) Conservative leader would be the one with the chance to govern at the head of a minority government, and to decide the date of yet another election.
Some of us are unbothered by that prospect. When I was a pollster at YouGov, I rather liked the old, nineteenth century Chartist demand for annual elections: it would be good for our business. But I concede that this idea does not appeal to everyone.
However, for the moment, the key point is this. If the next election deprives the Tories of the MPs they need to continue in office, but leaves Labour well short of a majority, there need be no “coalition of chaos”. Do not expect major constitutional upheavals at the behest of the SNP or Lib Dems. They will be bit players in the next parliament. It is the election after next that could have far more dramatic consequences and, just possibly, shake up the United Kingdom and its political system.