Episode 18: Panic Stations

John Lanchester

It’s forty years since anybody has won power in a UK general election without the backing of Rupert Murdoch. He’s not happy about the prospect. That’s the explanation for the surreal juxtaposition of the Sun covers from England and Scotland:

‘Vote Cameron!’ ‘Vote Sturgeon!’ It makes no sense, unless you see that what it’s really saying is ‘Vote Anyone But Ed!’ Miliband took an early decision to attack Murdoch, and as a result owes him nothing. To have people in office who don’t owe him is not Murdoch’s happy place.

Hence too the cover of today’s Times: ‘Miliband asks unions to save his No. 10 bid.’ The first reaction to that of anyone who knows anything about the UK constitution (such as it is) is: eh? What? The unions play no role in forming the next government, as the Times knows perfectly well. It also knows that the idea of unions choosing the next government is provoking for right-of-centre voters. The idea it’s trying to plant is that Miliband, if he comes second in the popular vote, has no right to be in Downing Street. The hook for the story – to do with internal Labour party rules – is slight. No matter. Yesterday’s Times leader was beating a similar drum. ‘Occupy Downing Street,’ it advised Cameron. ‘If Ed Miliband tries to oust David Cameron from No. 10 with SNP support the public will cry foul. The prime minister is right to say that he will stay put.’ The leader spoke of ‘Conservative signals at the weekend that Mr Cameron plans to stay in No. 10 even if he has no overall majority.'

This is part of an emerging theme, in which voices on the right are starting to say that Labour can’t form a legitimate government unless they are the largest party. In turn, voices on the left arestarting to talk about a ‘coup’, in which ‘the Conservative press are lining up to push Cameron into Downing Street even if most of the UK has just voted to sack him.’ The headline of that interesting piece by Adam Ramsay, on the OpenDemocracy website, was: ‘The newspapers are preparing for a coup, and Labour is doing nothing to stop them.’ Owen Jones puts it like this in the New Statesman: ‘If the Tories get more seats than Labour, get ready for a Very British Coup.’

How would that work? Here’s the relevant passage from the Cabinet Manual. (Other countries have constitutions. We have something which sounds like a how-to book about cupboards.)

2.12 Where an election does not result in an overall majority for a single party, the incumbent government remains in office unless and until the Prime Minister tenders his or her resignation and the Government’s resignation to the Sovereign. An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.

So Cameron would have first dibs on getting to 323 seats. The maths will be relatively simple, the politics less so; but he’ll know fairly soon whether he can get there or not. If he can’t, he’s out, though the Manual says that he can stay until Parliament gets together again on 18 May. It would be helpful for our democracy if the language here were a little more forceful. Look at the exact wording: ‘expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative’. ‘Expected’ is weaker than ‘obliged’, ‘unlikely’ offers wiggle room, and as for ‘clear alternative’, just how clear must it be? Would a non-agreement agreement between Labour and the SNP constitute a sufficiently ‘clear alternative’?

Still, even if Cameron did cling on in these circumstances, and even in the absence of a ‘clear alternative’, he would lose the first relevant vote in the Commons, and would be out. And Miliband would be in. The crucial constitutional point is that the prime minister must be the person ‘who is best able to command the confidence of the House of Commons and should form the next government’. The position is straightforward: if that person isn’t Cameron, it’s Miliband. From the constitutional point of view, it doesn’t matter if Nicola Sturgeon is a baby-eating secessionist, as long as her party sides with Labour on confidence votes.

I think the talk of a prospective coup is too strong, but the right-wing press are making an each-way bet here. If the scaremongering helps the Tories, so much the better. More likely, it helps to set up a narrative in which a Labour minority government is not in possession of a genuine mandate. This is a theme they can run with for a looooong time. It makes you tired just thinking about it, the idea of just how hard they would flog this horse over the next five years. And it would be quite likely to be a full five years, too. One of the ironies of the coalition is that by passing the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, they have made it easier for a minority government of the opposite political hue to battle through for a full term. Under the old system, a government fell if it lost votes on ‘confidence and supply’, i.e. formal votes of confidence or votes on crucial government business. After the new act, a government only loses power if it loses a formal vote of confidence. That’s a much higher bar: to bring Miliband down, the SNP would have to join with the Tories. North of the border, that would not be considered a good look. Sturgeon’s promise to ‘lock David Cameron out of Downing Street’ would sit oddly with helping the Tories back into office via a confidence vote. The coalition’s electoral law has made life easier for its successor.

In the meantime, the Tories and their allies in the press are going to hit this one pretty hard. Remember the long-term economic plan? We’re about to have 48 hours of short-term political panic.


  • 5 May 2015 at 5:07pm
    SpinningHugo says:
    "One of the ironies of the coalition is that by passing the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, they have made it easier for a minority government of the opposite political hue to battle through for a full term. Under the old system, a government fell if it lost votes on ‘confidence and supply’, i.e. formal votes of confidence or votes on crucial government business. After the new act, a government only loses power if it loses a formal vote of confidence. "

    That isn't quite accurate.

    The SNP can't 'put the Tories in' in this way.

    Salmond is right. The FTPA helps the SNP, in my view. See here

  • 5 May 2015 at 7:49pm
    chris832 says:
    The right-wing press throwing everything at Milliband and him still managing to get over the line would be one of, perhaps, the best thing about a Labour win... Thank-god for the internet and their declining influence...

    You didn't mention the other Times headline, which was supposedly some Labour front-benchers claiming Milliband would lack legitimacy if 2nd in votes or seats.... such a laughable understanding of the Constitution for the supposedly 'Establishment' paper.. embarrassing!

    • 6 May 2015 at 4:59am
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ chris832
      Only made less (or is it more?) laughable by Labour's incessant banging of a very big drum in Scotland to the tune of 'The Biggest Party Gets to Form the Government'. This was essential to their equally laughable proposition, 'Vote SNP, get Tory'. The idea that this song wouldn't be heard south of the border has turned out to be a bit of a miscalculation and it will reverberate around the halls of Westminster with free lyric sheets in all the right-wing papers in the days following the election.

    • 6 May 2015 at 11:27am
      Joe Morison says: @ Amateur Emigrant
      Voting SNP on the day won't lead to a Tory government immediately, but the massive swing to the SNP in the polls is obviously making a Tory victory more likely because they are successfully using the possibility of SNP influence on a Labour government to frighten the Kippers back to them.

      In the long term, the SNP cohort in Westminster will (perfectly democratically) do everything it can to so upset the English that our hostility will create an equal and opposite hostility in them and the demand, on both sides of the border, for a new referendum which the nationalists would win. This would condemn England to a Tory hegemony (possibly a split into two new parties: the Tory right and UKIP against the moderate Tories and the Cleggite Lib Dems) for the foreseeable future.

      Sturgeon may despise Cameron's politics, but she wants a Tory to victory because that would raise the demand for independence in Scotland. So much for solidarity: those radicals in Scotland who seek independence to create their socialist paradise seem quite happy to abandon the rest of us to our fate.

    • 6 May 2015 at 11:05pm
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ Joe Morison
      Since UKIP seem to attract many ex-Labour voters as well as Tories (see James Meek's recent piece on Grimsby) then I actually think that swithering Kippers will make little difference. As John Lanchester pointed out earlier in his series the poll graphs have been almost flat for all parties for months. Despite all the arguing, smearing and scaremongering nobody seems to be shifting much anywhere.

      In the long term the SNP will continue to do what they have done successfully in Holyrood since 2007 which is be responsible, temperate, competent and strategically smart in pushing a slightly lefter than Labour agenda. None of their gains have been made on the back of creating hostility with England in any sense. It is hardly difficult to spot where the hostility is coming from in the Scottish question. The SNP only have to say something reasonable to enrage their opponents.

      Despite what you imply, independence supporters know that there is little likelihood of the balance of opinion swaying in their favour during this Westminster Parliament, nor likely the next Holyrood one. There is no great urgency to push for another referendum until independence is sure to win the day. Five years of acting like stroppy gatecrashers will not win the SNP the support it wants.

      Your final point is therefore, not to put too fine a point on it, bollocks. The SNP know better than Labour what damage another term of Tory government would do to Scotland. Their supporters know it too and would not tolerate any sense that their leadership had acquiesced or reveled in putting Cameron back in No10. The SNP's goal in supporting a minority Labour administration would be to incrementally increase the powers of the Scottish Parliament in order to draw closer and closer to the condition of independence. It is also to ensure that where UK policy must prevail in Scotland it is closer to the left of centre agenda that the majority of people in Scotland clearly prefer and which will continue to build and reinforce support for the SNP.

      The SNP could do more for 'solidarity' over the next five years than Labour have done for the last 30. Far from abandoning England to a Tory fate, Scotland is potentially coming to its rescue. Nice to be met with such gratitude.

    • 11 May 2015 at 4:56pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Amateur Emigrant
      As Andrew Rawnsley wrote in Sunday's Observer, there is a broad consensus that it was the Tory tactic of “scaring voters south of the border with the thought that a Labour minority government would be the puppet of the Scottish Nationalists” that won them the day. Presumably the SNP leadership, like that of the other parties, knew the Tory scare tactic was working; Sturgeon's response was to ramp up the rhetoric about how much influence her party would have in Westminster and how she intended to use it to demand a more radical governent.

      As for the SNP worrying about their supporters holding them to blame; if your naivity as a highly informed and intelligent supporter is typical, they have nothing to worry about.

  • 6 May 2015 at 5:58am
    Joshua K says:
    Constitutional law is on Labour's side. But the Tory-controlled BBC has already set the narrative: only the party with the largest number of seats may legitimately govern.

    Reversing that narrative will be Ed's greatest challenge yet.

    • 6 May 2015 at 11:08am
      Joe Morison says: @ Joshua K
      On Today this morning, they had Gus O'Donnell who could not have made it clearer that being the party with the most seats was irrelevant. Then John Humphries, when interviewing Cameron, repeatedly put to him O'Donnell's points.

    • 6 May 2015 at 10:34pm
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ Joe Morison
      I don't think the BBC have been the worst at spreading the legitimacy argument - as has been observed in the comments on John Lanchester's other piece today, it's Labour themselves who have done most to push it.

  • 6 May 2015 at 7:56pm
    streetsj says:
    I guess, in a LAB/SNP agreement there might be enough LAB MPs who would vote against the Gov if they thought the SNP was getting away with too much.

    I think the really interestIng thing is what such a minority LAB Gov might try to pass ahead of facing the electorate again. I guess a mansion tax and a higher top rate tax band would be top of the list.

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