Gravitas Frenzy

John Lanchester · None of the Above

‘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 say-ing similarish things.)

That had the ring of truth. What’s going on at the moment, with everyone busting them-selves 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.


  • 8 May 2010 at 2:25pm
    Joshua Mostafa says:
    I remember at the union elections at my university, the was only one candidate for president; no one else had bothered to stand, but someone had gone to quite a bit of trouble putting up posters on behalf of the anti-candidate RON (Re-Open Nominations).

  • 8 May 2010 at 6:00pm
    marshmallow says:
    How can the Electorate botch an election? We the electors have been let down again by the self-interest if the political class in ducking a reform that was not in their individual interests. As with the expenses.

    They need to tread carefully now as this situation only plays well at the extremes...

    • 8 May 2010 at 6:14pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ marshmallow
      It's meant ironically, dude.

  • 8 May 2010 at 8:40pm
    Ezra Nathan says:
    This is an outcome we will get used to if and when prop representation is adopted.

  • 9 May 2010 at 12:47am
    loxhore says:
    You are confident of your 'will not work'. So am I. But The Observer is pushing a Lab-Lib coalition, plus motley others (to sidle round the fact that 258 + 57 ≠ 321). Their trump idea is that Gordon should promise to go.

  • 9 May 2010 at 3:18am
    NM says:
    Is there any legal reason why introducing PR would require a referendum (which the rightwing press would do everything and anything in its power to sabotage)? If not, then the answer should be quite straightforward: rainbow (or whatever) coalition that brings in PR (if necessary simply whip the vote), ending for ever Tory hopes of governing the country again alone. The right will scream blue murder, but so what? Lib-Lab have a solid 53% of the electorate behind them, and it is hard to see in particular how Lab's share could fall any lower. However frenzied the right will react, the electorate is highly unlikely to bloody care. Even if it temporarily did and Lib/Lab lost some support, this would be temporary, and the Tories would never get the majority they'd need to reverse PR.

  • 9 May 2010 at 6:21am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Why do I feel profoundly bored with these pseudo-democratic manoeuvrings? It's probably because the end-result will be very much the same whatever they stitch up as coalition or toleration, while the building burns down and the fat cats speculate on the Pound/Dollar/€ exchange. I bet that there will be a huge run against the pound first thing tomorrow. Not long to wait to find out just how unimportant these guys are.

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