‘This election result is not viable,’ Vernon Bogdanor said yesterday afternoon. ‘There will have to be another within months.’ (At least I think it was Vernon Bogdanor – it may have been David Butler or Peter Hennessy. It was a long siege in front of the TV, and apologies all round if I have misattributed. Constitutional experts don’t look alike but they do sound alike, I suppose because they are men from a similarish background who tend to be saying similarish things.)
That had the ring of truth. What’s going on at the moment, with everyone busting themselves to look serious and statesmanlike, is known in the American Senate as a ‘gravitas frenzy’. But the underlying realities are what they are. A Labour-Lib Dem pact will not work. Their combined totals only get them to 315, 11 short of a majority. Labour lost the election and the Lib Dems would be crazy to look as if they were putting Brown back in office. They would also be crazy to put Labour back in while the leadership issue was unresolved; the public wouldn’t swallow a second consecutive Labour prime minister for whom they hadn’t voted.
The Tories are pretending to offer a serious deal, but the promise of a ‘commission’ on electoral reform shows that the two parties can’t meet in the middle. Even if Cameron wanted to offer proportional representation (which he doesn’t), his party wouldn’t let him; even if Clegg wanted to accept anything short of PR (which he doesn’t), his party wouldn’t let him either. Lib Dems have been stitched up twice before on this issue, by Wilson and by Blair, and remember it bitterly. I see no prospect of agreement.
That leaves Cameron to do a deal with the DUP, getting to 315, and perhaps extracting a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement from Clegg – in other words they will back them over issues affecting government funding and votes of confidence. Since the Queen’s Speech on 25 May is in effect a confidence vote, that would let the Tories begin governing.
Then the dance would begin, with Cameron and Clegg jockeying for position over the inevitable second election. The Tories’ goal will be to look like a plausible government and to reassure both the markets and the electorate. Doing both at the same time, in the current fiscal climate, won’t be easy. Cameron’s one big advantage is that electorates hate being made to elect and will resent the party which forces the next contest. Clegg’s goal will be to remind everyone he exists and to get them thinking that he would be a better PM than anyone else. He can bring the government down whenever he likes, so his task is to pick the right moment, one which makes him look like a man of principle and the Tories look like eye-bulging ideologues. Labour’s job will be to pick a Miliband. (The best candidate would have to change his name by deed poll, because his surname at the moment is ‘Johnson’.) And then it’s back to the polls, within months.
The voting system and the electorate have botched this election. Reality, as it sometimes helpfully does, offers a metaphor for what we’ve done. In Chingford, an Independent candidate decided to do something frightfully amusing and changed his name to ‘None of the Above’. But because of the way names were presented, he appeared as ‘Above, None of the’ – at the top of the ballot.