Wednesday, 25 March 2015

General Election 2015: the real action will be after the polls close

Take a look at the numbers above. They're a projection taken from Stephen Fisher's elections etc website, which has been doing a great job of keeping abreast of all the statistical developments in the UK's General Election. Here he's thinking hard about what the polls mean for Britain's eventual electoral choice. The first thing that stands out? We're heading to a near-tie, in terms of seats in the House of Commons at least. The second thing? The Scottish National Party is zeroing in on a seriously, seriously good night. For which there are many reasons - a fact we'll cover in the near future.

That means that all the uncertainty is being back loaded into the days and even weeks following the election, not the remaining 42 days until the polls open. Because if little changes between now and May 7, the basic lineaments of the result are clear. Labour will do fairly well in England, not so well in Wales, and spectacularly, unbelievably badly in Scotland.

Then everything will be up in the air. What we know, or think we know, is this: the Scottish Nationalists won't help the Conservatives pass a Budget or a Queen's Speech, or come to their aid in a Confidence motion, under any circumstances at all. Labour and the SNP won't countenance a formal coalition. There's almost no chance at all of a German-style 'grand coalition' between Labour and the Conservatives.

So. Deep breaths. We've got a potential for a continuing Conservative - Liberal Democratic hookup, perhaps with support from the Democratic Unionists (who might be an MP or two stronger following an uneasy electoral pact with the rival Ulster Unionists) or a loose Labour - Liberal Democrat - SNP deal. Neither looks likely to have the numbers, or the appetite, for a stable fusion on the lines of the one the UK has lived under for the last five years.

So we're in for a period of extreme turbulence. A minority Conservative administration might struggle through a Queen's Speech before falling, letting in an as-yet unelected Labour leader (Yvette Cooper? Dan Jarvis?) who then governs with some limited SNP support. The Conservatives might scratch together enough votes to govern with the Liberal Democrats and the DUP until by-election defeats (or defections to UKIP, since a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union might be hard to secure) brings down that administration - with the same Labour - SNP effect as before. Or Labour could take power as a minority administration, then get knifed in the back by the SNP in the autumn, or after next year's Scottish General Election, by a party that cordially loathes the Labourites who so recently defeated them in last year's independence referendum. Letting in a Conservative Prime Minister (Boris Johnson?) who can't get the SNP to vote for anything, and who proceeds to say that no government can be formed, and an immediate General Election must be held.

One thing's for sure: the constitutional tangle we've got ourselves in with the Fixed Term Parliaments Act isn't much help. Lose a Queen's Speech? Lose a Budget? You can go right on governing - as in fact the SNP showed when they ruled as a minority in Edinburgh, losing a Budget and continuing to govern after a bit of a pause for breath. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act stipulates that only losing a confidence vote means that the government has to go, and that only if another cannot be formed after a 14-day hiatus does Parliament get dissolved. So expect a hell of a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between Budgets that are lost, Bills that go awry, votes of confidence that are won, ties and narrow defeats. It'll seem like a mess, and the voters might find out that they get results that they never expected. You read it here first, by the way - all the way back in October.

We've been here before. The Conservatives were the largest party after the 1923 General Election, but that contest ended up ushering in a minority Labour administration unhappily supported by the Liberals. The Labour government of Jim Callaghan did all right without a majority for more than a year with the help of the 'Lib-Lab' pact in 1977-78. All the headlines about crisis, disaster, trouble and strife will be overdone. The country will get through somehow.

But at least it won't be boring.