Recent polls have suggested that the 2015 general election will result in another hung parliament, with no single party gaining an overall majority. The media and voters may assume that 2015 will then see a replay of 2010, with the swift formation of another coalition government. Not necessarily so, as Robert Hazell, along with Peter Riddell of the Institute for Government, has been explaining in pre-election briefings for the broadcasters.
1. Will the leader of the largest party become Prime Minister?
Not necessarily. The constitutional rule is that the politician who can command the confidence of the House of Commons becomes PM. This could be the leader of the second largest party, if he can secure sufficient support from third and minor parties.
2. Does the Queen play a formative role?
No. The political parties must establish between themselves who can command confidence in the new House of Commons. The Queen will be kept informed, and will appoint that person as Prime Minister when the result of the negotiations becomes clear.
3. What if the negotiations result in a stalemate, with two rival combinations staking equal claims to be the next government?
The default position is that the incumbent PM has the right to remain in office and meet the new parliament to test if he can still command confidence, as Baldwin did in 1923-24.
4. Will another hung parliament lead to another coalition?
Not necessarily. A minority government is equally possible. In the twentieth century Britain had 20 governments; five were coalitions, and five were minority governments. It is also possible to have a minority coalition.
5. What is the role of the civil service?
The civil service will offer a location for the party negotiations (in 2010, Cabinet Office); they will be available to offer information, but not advice, and act as note takers if required. The parties may choose a different location in 2015 to keep away from the media, such as parliament.
6. How long will the negotiations take?
Longer than five days, for several reasons. There are likely to be more parties involved than the three which negotiated in 2010. Their backbenchers will insist on more thorough consultation, and endorsement by the parliamentary party, before agreeing to any coalition agreement or support arrangements. It should also be noted that in 2010 it took 13 days to settle the full coalition agreement. The detailed Programme for Government was published on 19 May.
7. Who governs in the meantime?
The incumbent Prime Minister and his government remain in office. Under the caretaker convention they cannot make decisions which would bind the hands of a future government. So they cannot make new policies, public appointments or let important government contracts. If decisions cannot be deferred the government must consult the opposition parties, as Alistair Darling did the weekend after the 2010 election, when he attended the ECOFIN meeting on 9 May 2010.
8. What happens to Ministers who lose their seats?
They remain Ministers, even though they are no longer MPs. Jim Knight attended Gordon Brown’s last Cabinet meeting on 9 May 2010 although he had lost his seat. In 1964 Patrick Gordon Walker was appointed Foreign Secretary by Harold Wilson, even though he had lost his seat, and served for three months until he also lost a by-election in early 1965.
9. Will there be a second election?
There has been talk of Cameron or Miliband forming a minority government and then calling a second election to strengthen their numbers, as Wilson did in 1964 and again in 1974. This is made much harder by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which abolished the prerogative power of dissolution. Under the Act parliament can only be dissolved by a two-thirds majority of all MPs (effectively requiring the support of both major parties); or following a vote of no confidence (passed by 50 per cent plus one of those voting), if no alternative government is formed in 14 days. Some MPs have called for repeal of the Act, and others believe it could be overridden, but they have yet to explain how.
A version of this post features in the latest edition of the Constitution Unit Monitor newsletter, published today. View it here for more on the 2015 general elections, constitutional issues at home and abroad and Unit updates and events.
This is the first of a short series of posts about government formation after the election. See the full series here.
About the Author
Robert Hazell is Professor of Government and the Constitution & Director of the Constitution Unit.