Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Even fatally wounded governments can stagger on for a long time

The Liberal Democrats' threat (or promise) to veto Parliamentary boundary reform means that the Conservatives will almost certainly not be able to form a majority government in 2015. It's that serious. You can look at the numbers here if you want, but does anyone really think that the Tories can gain an eleven point lead over Labour on the old electoral map? That's what they'd have to do - for an overall majority of one. Given that every single poll available shows a substantial slice of left-leaning Lib Dems moving over to Labour, that party is likely to win 35-36 per cent of the vote at the next election as a minimum baseline. A Conservative vote share of 47 per cent, anyone? Er, no. It's not going to happen.

So serious is this that many pundits still think that David Cameron (above) will still try to pass the new boundaries - as he's perfectly entitled to do, every single time the Boundary Commission reports under the new legislation. In every Parliament from now on, until a new administration changes the rules that (by the way) this column always said were a bit of a joke. What a mess. 

For now, all this is such a car-crash that commentators are asking how long the coalition can go on for, and whether the Lib Dems' leader, Nick Clegg, can hold on. Given that his party has now lost a fifth of its members, one is tempted to ask: why would he want to?

The lessons of history? Well, it's that governments and leaders can stagger on for a long time. Attlee went on for more than a year and a half after his majority was slashed to single figures in the 1950 General Election. Jim Callaghan's minority Labour administration lasted for nearly nine months even after the formal end of the 1977-78 Lib-Lab pact. John Major's government lurched ahead for years after its raison d'etre had been shattered by the European Exchange Rate Mechanism debacle in 1992. It even continued for three years after the effective loss of its overall majority in 1994, after eight Conservative MPs had the Parliamentary whip suspended (and one more resigned).

So we'll be in this nasty old mix-up for some time yet, I suspect. Suspended between a Coalition no-one really believes in any more, and a new dispensation - most likely a minority Conservative government, or a Labour-Liberal Democrat Coalition. Don't expect getting there to be quick - or easy.

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