Westminister, London: So what happens now?
After months of preparation, weeks of campaigning and 15 hours of voting on Thursday, what happens when no one has enough seats to form a majority government?
All of the opinion polls have consistently said that neither David Cameron’s Conservatives nor Ed Miliband’s Labour will have enough seats in the new parliament to form an outright majority government. That in itself is not unusual — of the 20 governments that ruled the United Kingdom during the 20th Century, 10 were either coalitions or minority administrations. In other words, Britain is not unused to parliaments where the government of the day hasn’t an overall majority.
The crunch constitutional test for any British government is that it retains “the confidence of the House of Commons”. Without the support of a majority of parliament’s 650 elected members, an executive is not considered capable of functioning.
So, as soon as the final result is known — or, in all probability, rather earlier — the negotiations will begin. The goal, quite simply, is to assemble an alliance in parliament that, in crucial votes when the chips are really down, can count on the backing of at least 326 MPs.
That alliance takes one of two main forms. It can be a formal coalition, such as the one between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats that has governed the country for the past five years. In this kind of arrangement, the key policy red lines, deals and trade-offs are generally hammered out between senior party figures before the new government takes office.
In its other form, decisions are rather less pre-cooked, the party whips busier, and the business of government rather more faltering. This is a minority government in which a larger party that does not have an outright majority strikes informal “confidence and supply” agreements with one or more of the minor parties: in exchange, usually for some policy concession, those parties agree to support the bigger one on its budget and any other key votes — such as motions of no confidence — in which the opposition might try to bring it down.
Right now, Labour looks to have more options when it comes to reaching its crucial 326 seats, and as such, to be better placed, if only marginally. It could cobble together a minority administration of anti-Conservatives — its members along with the Greens, the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, the Northern Irish Social Democratic Labour Party and with the large block of Scottish National Party.
The trouble is that Miliband has ruled out any informal or informal deal with the Scottish nationalists. Would he be toppled from within his party for someone else to strike a deal to govern? The argument could be made he didn’t lead Labour to election victory, so has to be replaced.
A “pro-Cameron” bloc of the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, United Kingdom Independence Party and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party would be possible — but only if Cameron shifts his bottom line commitment to hold a referendum on the UK’s future in Europe.
Within his party, Cameron will be a target. He would have led it into two general election campaigns and failed to win a majority each time out — and brought the UK dangerously close to break up in September’s close-run referendum on Scottish independence. Could he be replaced sooner rather than later before any coalition deal is done?
“We have a majoritarian mindset,” Professor Robert Hazell at University College London says. “Over the past 50 to 70 years, one party has generally won a majority so we think what we’re doing, in an election, is electing a government. But we’re not. We’re electing a parliament, and a hung parliament is a legitimate and democratic outcome of a parliamentary election.”
In much of continental Europe, he says, voters accustomed to coalitions and multiparty politics understand that. “You won’t hear a German voter say: ‘But I never voted for this government, or that coalition.’ They understand that electing a government is a two-stage process. It’s going to take us a few elections to get to that point.”
It took five days to hammer out a coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. Now, the Lib-Dems had introduced more stringent guidelines to prevent the party from being a scapegoat as a junior coalition partner.
And all parties are likely to want to consult far more widely with members and MPs, and to tie down much more detail of an eventual coalition or other agreement than the Conservatives and Lib-Dems did in 2010.
— with inputs from agencies