“In the absence of facts, myth rushes in”: Considering the consequences of a hung parliament in May 2015

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On 15 April 2015, Professor Robert Hazell, Director of the Constitution Unit, and Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute for Government, spoke at a Constitution Unit seminar entitled ‘Coalition or Minority Government in May?’ Juliet Wells comments on the event.

With a fortnight remaining before polling day, and national polls steadfastly suggesting that neither of the two principal political parties will now succeed in achieving a ‘lift-off’ in popularity, the prospect of another hung parliament looms large. It is a possibility with which pre-election commentary has increasingly been preoccupied: as Jonathan Freedland has noted, ‘the focus is not on the parties so much as the likely ruling blocs’. Against this background, Robert Hazell and Peter Riddell’s seminar on government formation after May 7 shone a welcome light onto the processes by which the ultimate ‘ruling bloc’ might come to be.

From this perspective the utility of the seminar was threefold: first, it represented an opportunity to debunk some commonplace misunderstandings about the consequences, in practical and constitutional terms, of a hung parliament; second, it provided a comparative overview of experiences in forming minority and coalition governments, both within the UK and abroad, and highlighted in particular the likely differences between 2010 and 2015; and third, it touched upon the possible deeper implications for British democracy of yet another equivocal general election result.

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Definitely not business as usual: Predictions and preparations for May 2015

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On 12 March 2015 Lord Gus O’Donnell and David Cowling spoke at a Unit seminar entitled ‘Forecasting the 2015 Election result, and preparing for a hung Parliament’. Ruxandra Serban reports on the event.

With just 6 weeks left until polling day, the outcome of the May 2015 general election remains highly unpredictable. With few signs that either of the two main parties will secure an overall majority in the House of Commons, current predictions are predominantly based on the assumption of another hung parliament. On 12 March 2015 the Constitution Unit and the UCL School of Public Policy hosted a seminar with David Cowling (BBC Political Editor) and Gus O’Donnell (Cabinet Secretary between 2005 and 2011) to discuss whether any reliable predictions can be made about the election, given the current shifting political landscape, and whether the 2010 election is a useful guide in the preparation for another hung parliament.

David Cowling framed the discussion around the unique features that the 2010 election brought to the usually predictable two-party race for Westminster: the first televised leaders’ debates, changes to parliamentary boundaries, and the surge of the third party (Liberal Democrats) in the opinion polls. Cowling dubbed 2010 ‘the losers’ election’, as the Conservatives failed to win an outright majority for the fourth election in a row, Labour scored their second worst vote share in 80 years, and even the Lib Dems lost seats.

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May 2015: Who forms the UK government in the event of a hung parliament?

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The polls continue to predict a hung parliament after the May 2015 election in which more than one potential government could be viable. In this context, Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu ask how government formation negotiations will proceed and which actors will have a privileged role in the bargaining process?

When several alternative governments are viable, negotiations are in practice guided by constitutional principles that determine which actors are asked to form the government and in what order. These principles are referred to as recognition rules in the field of comparative politics and they are often central in narrowing a range of potential government formation options decisively.

In the UK, the prime minister designate is appointed by the sovereign and asked to form a government. The monarch is expected to discharge this role in government formation without becoming involved in any negotiations. This is not difficult when a single party commands an outright legislative majority so that the prime minister designate is directly identified by the election result. However, in hung parliaments, the task of naming an appropriate government formateur often involves political choices. Moreover, who is selected as the formateur can have important consequences for the nature of the government that forms. In the past, the UK has applied a range of different principles to select formateurs. The problem is that these principles are potentially contradictory. The need to resolve the contradictions is becoming increasingly pressing in the context of long-term changes in electoral behaviour, which make it unlikely that the hung parliament of 2010 will remain an isolated outcome.

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The Cabinet Manual and the caretaker convention

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In the second of a short series of posts about government formation after the election, Robert Hazell discusses the weaknesses of the Cabinet Manual in terms of offering guidance on role of the incumbent PM and the caretaker convention.

On 23 February I gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee for their inquiry into government formation after the election. We discussed the inadequacy of the guidance in the Cabinet Manual about two things:

  • Whether there is a duty on the incumbent Prime Minister to remain in office until it is clear who can command confidence in the new Parliament
  • The caretaker convention, which requires a caretaker government to avoid actions or decisions which would bind the hands of a future government.

Duty on incumbent Prime Minister to remain in office

The draft Cabinet Manual published in December 2010 stated:

‘The incumbent Prime Minister is not expected to resign until it is clear that there is someone else who should be asked to form a government because they are better placed to command the confidence of the House of Commons and that information has been communicated to the Sovereign.’

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Continuing resentment against ‘establishment’ politicians has brought the right of recall back on to the legislative agenda

Robert Hazell discusses the challenges around developing legislation that will permit MPs to be recalled.

It was not a complete surprise to see the right of recall in the Queen’s Speech. The coalition government had kept open the option of legislating in a series of exchanges with the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee over the last two years.  The proposals stem originally from the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009, which led all three major parties to include almost identical proposals for a right of recall in their election manifestos in 2010.  The precise commitment of the coalition parties in the May 2010 Programme for Government was framed as follows:

Image credit- UK Parliament

Image credit: UK Parliament

‘We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP was found to have engaged in serious wrong doing and having had a petition for a by-election signed by 10 per cent of his or her constituents’.

True to its word, in December 2011 the government published a draft bill and White Paper.  But in 2012 the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) produced a very critical report, which led the government to pause.  The committee feared that the restricted form of recall proposed could reduce public confidence in politics by creating expectations that were not fulfilled.  The government’s long pause suggests that it may have shared the committee’s doubts.  But the rise of UKIP in the 2014 elections and continuing resentment against ‘establishment’ politicians tipped the balance: the government felt obliged to be seen to be doing something.

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What will become of the May 2015 UK Parliament if Scotland votes “Yes” on independence?

23rd March 2013

Every so often – but not very often – a major theme enters the national debate which nobody noticed much at first, but when attention is drawn to it, it becomes completely obvious.  This topic is one such we are pleased to  reprint, on how a referendum vote in favour of Scottish independence in September 2014 could greatly complicate the options for transitional UK government up to the general election in May 2015 and even more, the composition and form of the UK government thereafter.  The constitutional and political implications could be as fundamental for the reduced UK as for the departing Scotland.  The scenario is laid out in the Ballots and Bullets blog of the School of Politics and International Relations in Nottingham University. The authors are  Prof Ron Johnson of Bristol University, a leading authority on constituency boundaries and consultant on the proposed boundary changes in 2010;  the electoral geographer Prof Charles Pattie and David Rossiter, both of Sheffield University.
Ron was an expert commentator on the Conservative’s plan – aborted by the Lib Dems – to reduce the number of parliamentary seats by 50 and redraw boundaries to create constituencies of roughly equal size. The same team also warned that this policy would undermine” the underpinning of British representative democracy – that members of Parliament represent places with clear identities.”
The timetable for a Scottish Independence referendum in October 2014 and, if that is successful, implementation of the decision in March 2016 overlaps that of the fixed cycle for elections to the UK Parliament, for which the next general election will be held in May 2015. Governing the UK during that inter-regnum (when there will still be 59 Scottish MPs) will be difficult, as may forming a government after the May election, plus sustaining it after those 59 MPs depart in March 2016. And then there is the House of Lords…

Although opinion polls currently indicate declining support for Scottish independence, 18 months is a very long time in politics. Groups of civil servants are undoubtedly now working in both London and Edinburgh on the myriad issues that would have to be resolved should there be a positive vote in October 2014. Does their agenda include the following scenario?

  • Scotland votes clearly for independence, to occur – according to the SNP’s current timetable – in March 2016;
  • In May 2015 there is a UK general election (when Scotland is still a member of the UK). Labour wins 330 seats in the 650-member House of Commons, a majority of 10 over all other parties. Its complement of 330 includes 40 of Scotland’s 59 MPs. Labour forms a government; and then
  • In March 2016, the break-up of the United Kingdom occurs. The House of Commons is now reduced to 591 MPs, with Labour having 290; it no longer has a majority.

What would happen then?

Labour may go on governing – it would be only just short of a majority and, given that Sinn Féin MPs do not take their seats (and also that there are five of them then, as now), it could well get its business through. Alternatively it may reach an accommodation with one or more other parties – maybe even a LabLib pact (a full coalition is less likely).

If at some stage Labour loses a vote of confidence, however, then the procedures set out in the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, 2011, come into play: there may be a premature general election. And if that happens before late 2018, such an election would be held in the current 591 English, Welsh and Northern Irish constituencies – created using electoral data for 2000; following the Lords’ amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Act, 2013, the Boundary Commissions do not have to deliver recommendations for 548 new constituencies in those countries until October 2018.

Having voted for independence, however, the Scottish electorate may decide to send many more SNP MPs to Westminster in May 2015 – why vote for the parties of the now-rejected Union? Indeed, why vote at all?  It is doubtful that Labour could win a majority in England and Wales alone so David Cameron’s hopes of a Conservative majority over Labour and the LibDems in 2015 would be enhanced if very few Scottish MPs were elected to represent those two parties.

In addition, 11 of the Liberal Democrats’ current 57 MPs represent Scottish constituencies, so much will depend on how the soon-to-be-independent Scots vote in the 53 seats that currently return a non-SNP MP and how the MPs who replace them vote in the Commons during that inter-regnum (would they join with Labour and the Liberal Democrats in voting against the Queen’s Speech, for example, or just abstain?)

That might be a bit – perhaps very – messy, at a time when continuity and stability will still be preached as necessary conditions for economic recovery. As interesting – and potentially very controversial – will be what happens between October 2014 and March 2016, and especially between May 2015 and the latter date, whichever party (or parties) are in power. The government is already concerned about, and seeking a resolution to, the West Lothian problem: it will be magnified many-fold during that inter-regnum.

Once Scotland has voted for independence, what role should Scottish MPs play at Westminster during the following 18 months? Some might argue they should no longer participate – certainly not in its votes, though, of course, they should continue to represent their constituents’ interests that are covered by the transitional UK government (just as Sinn Féin MPs do now). But Scotland will still be a member of the UK and decisions will be taken during those 18 months on which they should have a say: what if the UK government recommends that the country goes to war somewhere in December 2014?

Would Scottish MPs agree to vote on a restricted range of issues only? Could agreement be reached on what those issues are? If not, would the government legislate to limit Scottish MPs’ roles in the House of Commons – perhaps with opposition support (the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are all opposed to the break-up of the Union)?

And what of the House of Lords. What would happen to the Scottish hereditary peers? The 1800 Act of Union allowed the Irish peers to elect 28 members to the Lords. None were elected post-independence, but also none were required to relinquish their seats, with some remaining members of a ‘foreign’ Parliament until their death, which for one Irish peer was as late as 1961. A similar situation occurred after the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707, when the Scottish peers were entitled to elect 16 of their number to sit in the Lords. From then on all new peers were appointed to the Peerage of Great Britain (as were a few peers created after 1922 who took Irish titles). All Scottish peers were entitled to sit in the Lords under the Peerage Act, 1963, and became part of the electorate after most of the hereditaries lost their seats under the House of Lords Act, 1999. There is thus no Scottish hereditary peerage, merely a UK Peerage, and it would presumably be up to those who, post-independence, considered themselves Scottish rather than UK citizens to withdraw from the hereditary electorate.

Of course, all peers are now appointed for life, and many of those currently occupying the House of Lords benches have some Scottish links. But could a separate ‘Scottish Life Peerage’ be defined to identify them? On what criteria – residence (first, or second)? Some may self-identify and withdraw but others, like their Irish predecessors, may decide to stay. How could they be removed? Could a generic Act be conceived, or would there have to be a series of ad hoc pieces of legislation? And when it was all settled – it might take some time – would the Prime Minister then replace them with a new tranche to maintain the currently-desired party balance?

Uncertainties abound, but governing the UK may be very difficult during the transition period, even if there is good will on all sides.

Ron Johnston is Professor of Geography in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol, Charles Pattie is Professor of Geography in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield, and David Rossiter.