The Final Flurry

John Lanchester · A Good Result for Labour

This election campaign was always likely to end with photos of David Cameron standing on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street. The story had far more twists than anyone can have expected, but it’s ended up at the place where it’s been heading for some time.

Still – quite a ride. The final flurry was the flurriest of all, with Brown’s resignation and the accompanying offer of a deal on PR bouncing the Tories into increasing their competing offer. At the same time, many Labour figures began to panic at the prospect of being shoehorned back into power via a coalition of arguable legitimacy. Some comments here have pointed to Britain’s rich history of unelected prime ministers. The history is indeed there, but I don’t think it’s relevant in the current circumstances. An unelected PM coming to power in a minority coalition in the most hostile media environment a Labour premier has ever faced: that’s an unprecedented formula, one which threatened to crash the party through its core-vote electoral floor.

This is a good result for Labour, indeed it’s arguably the best result they could have had, with one qualification (well, two qualifications, if you include the detail about having lost the election). That is that the subject of the Lib Dems enrages Labour and has the potential to make the party seem at its tribal and sectarian worst. That’s a tendency they’ll need to master if they’re going to win over all those Lib Dem voters whose intention was not to help put the Tories in office and keep them there. Labour’s plan has to be to elect an electable leader, wait for the government to make itself the most unpopular in modern British history – that should take about 18 months to two years – and then hoover up the votes at the next election.

As for the Lib Dems, I imagine about half their voters and activists are feeling physically sick this morning. Let’s hope that referendum on AV feels as if it is worth it. I don’t think Nick Clegg could have played his hand any better, in terms of extracting concessions from the Tories. But his concern must surely be that a. he has permanently alienated a vast segment of his own supporters and b. any moderating effect on Tory actions will benefit David Cameron more than if benefits the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems have wanted power for a long time. As all grown-ups know, more tears are shed over answered prayers.

That moderating effect may be a secret weapon for Cameron in his battle with his own party. A Tory minister once observed that the first three people who speak at a 1922 committee meeting, on any subject, are mad. Those guys are still there, and when they aren’t, they have been replaced by younger versions of themselves. Cameron has two huge battles ahead, one with the deficit and one with elements among his own supporters; I suspect that at times, he’s going to find the first contest the more straightforward.

Speaking for myself, it hasn’t fully sunk in yet that the administration has changed for only the second time in more than 30 years. I’m off to get my GP to write me up for some Prozac.


  • 12 May 2010 at 10:42am
    marshmallow says:
    If there had been a box on the ballot paper labelled 'Tory-LibDem Coalition for a fixed term with Tories in charge of the money and Libs in charge of the soft stuff' I would have Xed it.

  • 12 May 2010 at 11:10am
    Joe Morison says:
    Two things we don't know: what power will Clegg as 'deputy PM' have (inverted commas because it's not an official office of state), at one extreme we had Hezza who appeared to have at least as much power as Major in that administration's dying days; and, why the delay appointing Theresa May as Home secretary? It's a great shame Clegg couldn't get one of his in that post. Was May a compromise, what sort of Home Secretary will she be? A liberal Home Secretary, we haven't had one since '67, would make it all worthwhile - we'll have to wait and see.
    As JL says, it's hard to see how Clegg could have done better - a filthy hand that he's played well.

  • 12 May 2010 at 11:19am
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    Labour’s plan has to be to elect an electable leader, wait for the government to make itself the most unpopular in modern British history – that should take about 18 months to two years – and then hoover up the votes at the next election.

    It might be four years until the next election. They aren't going to hold it when it's convenient for the Labour Party. A week is a long time, in politics. H. Wilson.

    • 12 May 2010 at 12:39pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      The next election will be on 7 May 2015, unless a confidence motion fails by a margin of 10% or more (i.e. 65 votes difference) - that's one of the new rules they're bringing in. 306 Tories, with everyone else against them, would lose by a margin of 38. I think we could be here for some time.

  • 12 May 2010 at 12:32pm
    outofdate says:
    John Major's was the most unpopular government in history until Tony Blair's, but then Gordon Brown came along, so yes, chances are that Cameron's is next.

    But maybe that's a risk worth taking to habituate the Great British Public to coalition governments. The papers' hysteria at the idea of the country lacking a strong single-party government is as nothing compared to the horror that grips most European counties at the thought of a strong single-party government, partly because they look at Britain and think, Christ, we must never allow so much vicious incompetence to be concentrated in the hands of one group. Coalitions water down grand schemes, mute the screams of the ideologues and slow progress to a footling day-to-day of compromises. All good, I'd have thought, and somehow much truer to what we're always told is the soul of Bwitain.

  • 12 May 2010 at 2:53pm
    ski says:
    In the grand scheme of things this is a great result for labour. Who would have thought twelve months ago, as Cameron rode high in the polls and the economy imploded that a tired, three term, post-Iraq, Labour party would come close to retaining power and would prevent the Tories from taking a majority. Extraordinary.

    Instead of an outright collapse - á la Conservatives 97, Labour has taken a bad battering but are not obliterated for a generation. There is no reason to believe Labour could not win the next election (while in 97 it was clear the conservatives were banished for a long time).

  • 12 May 2010 at 4:29pm
    loxhore says:
    Not Clegg the Unready, but The Cleggotiator.

  • 12 May 2010 at 4:42pm
    loxhore says:
    re 'then hoover up the votes at the next election': because I haven't looked into it closely enough yet, I'm unclear on the circumstances that would bring about the coalition's fall (vote of no confidence with what majority?), and on what the coalition's fall would itself bring about (Con minority government or automatic election?).

    Is it -- which I'd regret -- to all intents locked in for half a decade?

  • 12 May 2010 at 5:12pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    From the Guardian blog: 4.51pm: Nick Clegg is going to be in charge of political reform, and the Tory/Lib Dem document makes it clear that the new government has bold plans in this area. As well as fixed-term parliaments, a referendum on AV and giving voters the power of recall, it wants plans for a wholly or mainly elected Lords to be ready by December 2010.

    Labour was in power for THIRTEEN YEARS without proper reform of the Lords.

  • 12 May 2010 at 5:36pm
    bilejones says:
    The Daily Mash gets it about right.

  • 12 May 2010 at 6:39pm
    Robin Durie says:
    Years out of office & the concomitant hunger for power enabled the Tories & LibDems to move further, & more quickly, than Labour negotiators were able to countenance. The solidifying effects of prolonged incumbency further undermined Labour's ability to envisage a dynamic, creative, response to the situation.

    The state of the economy offers the coalition its best chance of holding together, as well as its biggest threat of falling apart.

  • 13 May 2010 at 10:02am
    streetsj says:
    Can a government propose a vote of no confidence in itself?

  • 13 May 2010 at 10:04am
    Robin Durie says:
    I don't think it is better than the alternative, Joe - it undermines absolutely the principle of a majority in the House of Commons. Furthermore, it sets a precedent.

    It will tell us a lot about the principles of the LibDems with respect to the 'reform of politics' if they support this proposal.

    • 13 May 2010 at 10:16am
      Joe Morison says: @ Robin Durie
      It undermines it but is that a bad thing? If one wanted government to always reflect the will of the people at any moment, we could have instant e-referendums deciding everything contentious, it would be hideous. Democracy needs to be held within a constitution which allows for effective government, fixed term parliaments will help ensure that. The measure takes from the PM a power he only ever uses for party gain; in that respect it adds to democracy, it levels the playing field.

  • 13 May 2010 at 10:14am
    Robin Durie says:
    Just to be absolutely clear what the 55% threshold for a confidence vote entails: to defeat the government, the opposition would have to muster 358 votes. The most that all non-Tory parties could gather would be 343. In other words, at least 8 Tories would have to vote against the Government in a vote of no confidence.

    Do the LibDems know what they're signing up to?

    • 13 May 2010 at 10:18am
      Joe Morison says: @ Robin Durie
      I'm sure they do, it was one of their primary demands. They knew otherwise they'd be stitched up by Cameron, the Tories would win a working majority, and the country would never forgive them.

    • 13 May 2010 at 11:25am
      alex says: @ Robin Durie
      I asked a politico friend and he said you have to discount not just the Speaker but the 5 Sinn Fein MPs who never take up their seats. So The most that all non-Tory parties could gather would be 338.
      Also I'm trying to interpret this statement in the Guardian's guide to the new coalition: 'Lib Dem spokesmen can speak against but must abstain on any Commons vote. If it leads to a government defeat it will not be regarded as an issue of confidence.' So basically the LibDems have handed their balls on a plate to the Tories, right?

  • 13 May 2010 at 12:56pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    For anyone of you who doesn't read the Guardian's election blog Haroon Siddique points out there that:

    Robert Hazel, from UCL's Constitution Unit, has briefed Left Foot Forward that people are confusing a confidence motion with a dissolution resolution:

    This is intended to strengthen the hand of the Lib Dems: Cameron could not call an early election without the consent of his coalition partners, because the Conservatives command only 47% of the votes in the Commons.

    Some commentators appear to have confused a dissolution resolution moved by the government, and a confidence motion tabled by the opposition. On no confidence motions tabled by the opposition parties, the normal 50% threshold should continue to apply.

    Left Foot Forward's Will Straw writes:

    All this begs the question of whether 55% is too low a threshold for a dissolution resolution. If the point of a fixed-term parliament is that the governing party cannot dissolve parliament to suit itself, perhaps the threshold should be two-thirds, as in both the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly.

  • 13 May 2010 at 3:53pm
    Robin Durie says:
    oops - blinded by faux democratic outrage!

    Iain Roberts makes a similar series of points here:

    The point about whether 55% is too low a threshold for dissolution, to the extent that it would allow any governing party or coalition with a majority of 55% or more to engineer a dissolution, thereby undermining the principle of fixed-term parliaments, is a good one, though probably of more interest to academics and 'constitutional experts' than to working politicians...

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