Thursday, 6 May 2010

The morning after the revolution

Some commentators have wisely decided not to waste any more time trying to predict the outcome of the election, and instead turned their attention to what might happen if - as seems likely - the Conservatives are the largest party in a hung parliament.

First of all, Matthew Norman examines the entrails of the Major administration to see what portends it offers:
I think I know, for example, that David Cameron has been rehearsing for Friday by studying John Major's re-election in 1995. Losing the votes of a third of his MPs against as flaky a challenger as John Redwood was a blatant catastrophe for Major. Yet the millisecond the result was announced, his loyalists invaded College Green in battle formation to celebrate a definitive triumph. An ovine political media followed, bleating this cobblers as fact, and that was that.

This, I reckon, is Cameron's non-majority strategy. If he wins most votes and seats, however short of the magic 325, he will send the Hagues and Goves, the Clarkes and Pickleses out, while everyone else is sucking their pencil in confusion, to declare that the Tories have a mandate to govern alone. In moments of absolute chaos, as with Bush v Gore in 2000, convention and psephology are trumped by effective public relations, and at that Mr Cameron is no fool. He understands that if he takes possession of it, and frames it as he wishes, he is nine tenths of the way through the door of No 10. But this is what I think I know I know, and the form book on hunches makes far from pretty reading. (1)
And, in the Guardian, Martin kettle contemplates much the same idea:
Let us suppose, for the sake of the argument, that the Conservatives emerge on Friday as the largest party in votes and seats, with around 300 MPs. Assume, too, that Labour is second in both votes and seats with about 210 MPs. Then assume also that the Liberal Democrats come in third in votes and seats with around 110 MPs. Yes, I know all this is unlikely. Equally, though, it's by no means impossible.

Friday morning dawns with this result. So who gets to govern? Very clearly, Labour has had a terrible defeat. Its chances of remaining in office in such circumstances would rightly be poor. But suppose Labour, under Gordon Brown (we can forget the idea of an instant leadership coup), is quick to offer the Liberal Democrats a coalition government, with at least five Lib Dem members of the cabinet, and an offer to introduce the Alternative Vote Plus system, subject to referendum, before the next election. And suppose that Nick Clegg says, yes, I have to consult my party about an offer like that.

Note what is being suggested here – and also be clear what is not being suggested. All I am posing is the possibility that Labour, though defeated, tries to win time to discuss the possibility of forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats to stop the Conservatives taking office and that the Lib Dems agree to look at the option. I'm not saying the discussions would produce an agreement and I'm certainly not saying that it would be a good one. All I'm posing is the possibility that Labour might try and that the Lib Dems would be sufficiently interested to look at the offer. In effect, all I am suggesting is something quite modest, that Brown might remain in power over this weekend to see if the idea is a runner.

As I read my British political history (notably the aftermath of the 1923 election), as well as Sir Gus O'Donnell's recent guidelines, this would be an entirely proper response to such an election outcome. In a country that was used to coalitions and comfortable with the possibility, the discussion would certainly happen, even if it eventually got nowhere. Yet it is hard to believe that Brown and Clegg would be permitted even to explore it this time.

It is increasingly clear from David Cameron's interviews over the past few days that the Tories would not merely oppose such an effort (perfectly reasonably on one level) but that they might also, much more controversially, try to disrupt and overturn it. Cameron seems to be suggesting that in the circumstances imagined above, he would do two things: first, he would declare the Tories the winners and, second, he would encourage the view that Labour was trying to steal an election it had lost. You only have to imagine what Saturday morning's Sun, Mail and Express would look like to see how real a threat this would be.

Would either Labour or the Lib Dems have the nerve to go on trying to cut a deal with the Murdoch and Associated papers howling that they were trying to steal the election? The February 1974 precedent is not much help here, since Labour (which was in the position I am hypothesising for the Tories this time) did not actually claim victory or actually charge Ted Heath with attempting to defy the voters – and it certainly did not have many newspapers at its beck and call either. In 1974, Harold Wilson simply declared that Labour was ready to form a government if asked. If Cameron was to be guided by precedent, that's what he would do too. But he is now saying or implying a much more radical response than Wilson. (2)
All of which suggests, that, the death rattle of this election may be long, drawn out and unpleasant to hear.

Cameron has already indicated he won't be bound by convention, and respect the incumbent prime minister's right to attempt to form an administration in the first instance (3).

Obviously, Cameron can not force the Liberal Democrats not to hold discussions with Labour - but I suspect the upshot of the shrieking about 'betrayal,' 'stealing the election' and 'cheating the people' that the Mail, Sun and Express would engage in would mean any government formed by Labour and the Lib Dems would be doomed from the start. Even if the parties followed through on their discussions and came to an arrangement, they would immediately be so unpopular, and so continually attacked that they would be face complete annihilation at the next election - which would probably not be too far into the future, as the Lib Dems might opt to abandon their agreement to try to preserve their gains from this election.

Very nasty times ahead, I fear. The British right wants to get back in charge, and is willing to play very dirty to do it. The frightening thing is, it will all be done - very vocally - in the name of defending "The people's choice."

Like "The People's Princess," that's a lie, a myth being foisted on the public. If Cameron and the Conservatives can not scrape together a majority on there own, they are not "The people's choice."

And the irony is that the reason the right are so desperate to stop a Lib-Lab pact is that it will almost certainly deliver proportional representation - which will, in turn, mean the Conservative party will never enjoy the singular power to pursue interests of the party's backers - a group very different from the majority of people who vote conservative - want to see.
1 - "Soon, Gordon, the torment will be over," by Matthew Norman. Published in the Independent, 5th of May, 2010. (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/matthew-norman/matthew-norman-soon-gordon-the-torment-will-be-over-1962311.html)
2 - "Could the Conservatives steal this election?," by Martin Kettle. Published in The Guardian, 5th of May, 2010. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/05/tory-election-victory-florida)
3 - As described previously on lefthandpalm: http://lefthandpalm.blogspot.com/2010/05/when-going-gets-tough-tories-start.html

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