Archive for the 'Hung parliament' Category


An interim government would need more than just a PM

Monday, September 30th, 2019

There has been much speculation in recent weeks about the possibility of the opposition parties and ex-Tory refuseniks coming together to oust this government and install an interim government, tasked with a very limited role of negotiating an Article 50 extension, promptly followed by a GE. (A variant of this proposal would have the interim government stay in office long enough to call a second EU referendum, but that seems vanishingly unlikely).

Like many suggestions for resolving the impasse, this one immediately runs into difficulties. The first problem is who would be the interim Prime Minister. Jeremy Corbyn thinks it should be him, but hardly anyone outside Labour agrees. To have any chance of getting the necessary cross-party support, including the support of ex-Tories and those who left Labour precisely because of Corbyn, a far less divisive and extreme figure would be required. Ideally this should be someone with experience of government, and who has no political ambition for the future. Margaret Beckett has been tipped as one possibility, or perhaps Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman. Whether Jeremy Corbyn would support an ex-Tory PM, or ex-Tories support a Labour PM backed by Corbyn, is a problem which itself might scupper the idea.

Let’s assume, though, that that difficulty can be overcome and a potential PM agreed. In all the speculation about possible choices for PM, hardly anyone seems to have noticed that a government is more than a PM. It needs ministers as well. Admittedly, this short-lived interim government would not be developing policy, or introducing legislation, or making long-term decisions, but that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t need a skeleton ministerial team. Just as in the ‘purdah’ period after an election has been called, sometimes ministerial direction or the formal legal authorisation of ministers is indispensable. Although many minor ministerial posts and even some important Cabinet posts could be left vacant for the few weeks of the interim government’s existence, it would still need a Chancellor to sign off financial measures and to deal with any market or banking crises, as Alastair Darling had to in 2010. It would need a Home Secretary to be available to take action if there were a sudden terrorist atrocity or other emergency. It would need a Defence Secretary for similar reasons, and a Foreign Secretary to provide continuity in our relations with other countries. It would need a Lord Chancellor, and an Attorney General. In the current circumstances with Stormont suspended it would definitely need a Northern Ireland Secretary.

One can easily play Fantasy Cabinet Formation and put some names to these posts from those who supported the Benn Act. Phil Hammond or Ken Clarke could easily step up as temporary Chancellor, as could David Gauke, Yvette Cooper, or Vince Cable. The problem, though, is that the parties setting up this interim government would need to agree on dozens of such ministerial appointments, each one highly charged politically.

How likely is that, and how would the posts be divvied out? If Jeremy Corbyn were to agree on, say, Ken Clarke as PM, would he in return demand that John McDonnell becomes interim Chancellor? Or if the PM is a Labour figure, would Corbyn really be prepared to give his support to an ex-Tory Chancellor? Would the LibDems insist on Jo Swinson being in cabinet? Each appointment would become a complex multi-party negotiation amongst politicians who don’t trust each other.

This looks like one of those ideas – like Brexit itself – which looks more and more impractical the more you look at the details.

Richard Nabavi


New Rules. Britain’s changing constitution

Sunday, May 5th, 2019

Sometimes it only takes a small change to alter the shape of things radically.  In Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford, the developers of the 80s computer game Elite explained that the introduction of a scoop for a tiny dollop of memory transformed the possibilities, allowing players to become pirates as well as traders.

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 is a similarly small change and similarly it allows MPs to play as pirates as well as traders. The Act transferred the power to determine whether a general election should be held early from the Prime Minister to Parliament. In doing so, it took away from the Prime Minister one of her predecessors’ most potent weapons: the ability to make a vote on a policy a matter of confidence in the government.

This simple change has changed Britain’s constitution fundamentally. The government now is in place at the pleasure of Parliament, not the other way around.

Compare and contrast two weak Conservative governments, both seeking to get difficult EU-related legislation through, both with militant anti-EU factions, both facing Oppositions seeing their first duty as being to oppose.  

In the early 1990s, John Major’s government, with a small majority, was harried through Parliament during the passage of the Maastricht Treaty into British law. When the government was defeated over the Social Chapter, John Major brought the provision back before Parliament as a vote of confidence, which he duly won.  

That government had a dismal lingering half-life from that point on, but with the benefit of hindsight it suffered less from crisis than from exhaustion.

Theresa May’s government is nowhere near as well-placed. It can call a vote of confidence but it cannot call a vote of confidence on a particular policy. So, for example, it cannot call a vote of confidence on whether the country should sign up to the withdrawal agreement that Theresa May negotiated with the EU.

This inability to link a decision on policy to the continuance of the government is central to the government’s current problems. The government can and has won a vote of confidence. When it comes to policy, however, every MP feels the need to put his or her own preferences first.  

Moreover, the government’s inability to secure its own policy agenda on Brexit has encouraged MPs to take back control from the executive and allow the legislature to seek to put a policy agenda together.  

So Parliament forced the government to let MPs have a meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement and then, when the government’s withdrawal agreement was meaningfully voted down, tied the government’s hands so as to seek to rule out no deal and took the opportunity to set up indicative votes as to what the way forward should be. On this central area of policy, the legislature is becoming the executive.

Theresa May can do nothing about that. She commands the confidence of Parliament in a limited sense but does not command the machinery to make it bend to her will. There is no end in sight to her misery and no one has any incentive to help her.

When the executive is a government with a healthy overall majority in Parliament, it can prevail by keeping its own Parliamentary supporters (many of whom are or hope to form part of the executive) in line. When the government cannot exercise effective control over a stable majority, it is prey to the wishes of Parliament.

It is nine years since any party had a substantial overall majority. The implications of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 were masked until 2015 by the size of the coalition’s majority. Since then, Parliament has grown steadily bolder in taking back control, with Conservative hardline Brexiters operating a guerrilla war against David Cameron and George Osborne, even opposing parts of the budget, and then Remain-voting MPs seeking to ensure that Theresa May’s Brexit meant a version of Brexit that they were comfortable with.

Now you might well argue that this is not how it should work.  The classical model of government is that the executive runs the administration and drives the policy agenda, while the legislature merely scrutinises that policy agenda.

You will occasionally hear people declaim about the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament, a fiction that disregards the fact that the monarch has had only a backstop role for at least 200 years, that treats the executive as a surrogate monarch and that overlooks the small technical objection that this is not the way that things work in practice. It’s quite a theoretical model that not only has no grounding in present day realities but can simply be demonstrated to be incorrect. Yet it continues to hold considerable sway.

If we look at things how they are, and not how we might wish them to be, the story is simple, if disconcerting. The executive controls such part of the administration that Parliament has not removed from it, and those parts are presently diminishing. It is a God of the gaps: sweet science reigns.

As I note above, this only really matters when the government does not reliably control the House of Commons. Hung Parliaments and small majorities, however, have become the new normal. What this means is that parties aspiring to power should now be very wary of forming unstable minority governments, which can easily get trapped in office, and look instead to form stable coalitions.

And what it means right now is that the Conservative is going to be left on the rack, with no way out of its torment. Don’t expect either a Brexit deal on terms that the government can accept or a general election in the near term. The ship of state is drifting to the sea bed.

Alastair Meeks


What’ll this do to the final week of the campaign?

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Could opinion harden against a hung parliament?

Both the Guardian and Telegraph lead on a civil service plan that would have Mr. Brown remaining at Number 10 in the case of a hung parliament.

As the Guardian puts it: “Under the proposals, which have been drawn up to prevent a constitutional crisis and a run on the pound, parliament may not reconvene for nearly three weeks to allow the prime minister to form a working government with the minority parties. Normally, MPs would sit again in six days..Senior Whitehall sources stressed tonight that Brown could remain prime minister and try to create a working majority even if the Tories were to win most seats.”

Without getting into detail of the constitutional niceties isn’t this going to add to what’s been called the “Hung Parliament paradox” – the more it seems likely the less likely it is to happen?

For the experience of 1992, when the polls had the parties neck and and neck, was a hardening of the Tory vote that gave John Major another five years as PM.

Then, of course, it was the incumbent government that benefited maybe because Major was enjoying a significant lead in the approval ratings over Kinnock. This time could it be the opposition? It might for as we’ve highlighted in recent weeks Mr. Brown still has huge negative approval numbers.

Both YouGov and Ipsos-MORI have this in the low 60s.

The only occasion when a PM won an election with negative numbers like that was Tony Blair in 2005 – but he was facing an opposition leader who was even more unpopular. Currently YouGov have Cameron with a net ten point positive while MORI have this at even.

The Ladbrokes Tory majority price has tightened to 8/13 while NOM is at 13/8. Other bookies are in the same area.

Mike Smithson