AMONG all of the uncertainties of our first hung Parliament in 36 years, a few definite trends can now be discerned. The first, and most important, is that we are now in coalition talks. Gordon Brown wants to cling to power and do anything he can to create a coalition with the Lib Dems and anybody else who wants to prop up his failed regime. However, Nick Clegg is not playing ball – or at least not yet. As he said yesterday morning during his statement, he thinks that it is more legitimate for him to open discussions first with the Tories. The major concession he evidently wants is voting reform and a move towards proportional representation. The big story of this evening, the weekend and possibly even the days following that will be how these discussions pan out. Brown has called in the civil servants, who have being tasked with facilitating the talks.
The second is that there are no real winners from yesterday’s election – all the parties are losers. David Cameron’s Conservatives came ahead, winning by far the most seats and significantly increasing their share of the vote. They gained more constituencies in one single election than they have done for many decades. However, the Tory party failed to grab enough seats to win outright (the magic number being 326). It did gain many target seats but failed to win others. Lord Ashcroft’s famed marginal seats strategy failed; the entire campaign was mismanaged and fell way short of expectations. Yet for all these weaknesses, the Tories are now the biggest force in British politics.
Contrary to all of the propaganda from Labour ministers this morning, Gordon Brown’s party was the biggest loser. It has fallen massively short – disastrously so. Its share of the vote has plummeted and it has lost a huge amount of seats. The only good news for Labour is that it easily remains the dominant left-wing party in the UK; the Lib Dems didn’t overtake them, either in terms of the popular votes or in numbers of seats.
In fact, the most astonishing development was the complete failure of the Liberal Democrats to deliver on their inflated poll ratings of the past couple of weeks. Virtually all of Cleggmania vanished; they ended up losing around five seats while only slightly increasing their share of the vote, an unimaginably poor result. There is no new order; no realignment of UK politics. Given how badly he has done, and his shocking failure to convert into votes his debate-induced bounce, Clegg’s own future as party leader may soon be in doubt. Vince Cable, who had seen his fortunes eclipsed by Clegg in recent weeks, may once again come to the fore; he could emerge as a key interlocutor in any coalition discussions.
But given all of that, the last thing we need is a coalition of the two biggest losers. It would be an absurdity were the Liberals to seek to prop up the Labour party – the idea that they could be tempted to do so if their Tory talks collapse, perhaps in return for Brown stepping down as PM, is disappointing. Throughout this morning, Labour politicians have been calling for an “anti-Conservative progressive coalition”; code for a last-minute, desperate deal to keep the Tories out at any cost. Clegg should refuse to take the bait. Labour – which for years and until just a few weeks ago – was utterly opposed to electoral reform, is now offering a referendum on changing the electoral system. Many Lib Dems may eventually find this almost impossible to resist – but how could a party supposedly committed to “change” rescue a dying government?
It is wrong for Gordon Brown to cling to power and to try and form a new government, even though he is constitutionally entitled to do so. It is equally important for the Tories not to go into coalition with the Liberal Democrats. They must not agree to their requests to throw out the existing first past the post voting system and replace it by a variant of proportional representation. This would be suicide for the Tories; never again would they be able to govern on their own. More importantly, it would be bad for the country: elections like this are very rare. Over time, the first past the post system tends to deliver stronger governments with clear mandates; it also usually allows clean shifts from left to right. The fact that it hasn’t worked this time around is no reason to throw out a system that has served the UK well for many decades. If there had to be a major constitutional reform – and I am not necessarily advocating this right now – England should be given its own devolved Parliament. The only reason why Cameron doesn’t have a majority of the seats is because Scotland is overwhelmingly Labour; England, even more so than in 2005, is now heavily Tory.
Cameron needs to do a deal with the eight or so DUP Northern Irish MPs and then govern as a minority government (such a mini-coalition would probably fall around a dozen seats short of a majority). The fact that Sinn Fein refuse to take up their seats in Parliament would help Cameron as it reduces the number of seats required for a working majority. The Tories should then woo the odd independent Liberal and even Labour supporters and try and pass through as much legislation as possible. If that doesn’t work we will need a second general election in a few months’ time. That is the only way to proceed.
The markets will obviously be rattled – and I’m afraid that they are right to be deeply apprehensive. Britain is in the middle of deep fiscal crisis yet is about to be governed by an unstable administration (at best) or be left completely rudderless (at worst). The nightmare is that whoever is in charge must push through an urgent programme of fiscal consolidation (among many other reforms); yet a minority government led by David Cameron is unlikely to survive if it begins to inflict real pain onto the electorate. It is a lose-lose situation; key to Cameron’s short-term plans would be an emergency budget as well as the creation of an office for budget responsibility, whose task it would be to expose the real state of the public finances and produce an audit of government spending. Would he have the courage or ability to do any of this in a minority government? Equally, can he afford not to tackle these fundamental issues?
We’re entering unchartered waters; anything is now possible.