Election 2010: Forming a government


As I write, there is only one constituency left to declare: Thirsk and Malton, where they are not voting until 27th May, but where the Conservatives would seem to be supremely safe.  So, the potential best result for the Conservatives is a total of 307 seats, which would leave them 19 short of an overall majority (and the potential worst result is a total of 306, 20 short of an overall majority).  Even with a deal with the DUP (which would gain them an extra 8 votes in the Commons), they fall 11 short of an absolute majority.  If we factor in the 5 Sinn Fein MPs – who will, presumably, refuse to take their seats as usual, thus effectively reducing the target for an overall majority from 326 to 321 – the Conservatives are only 6 votes shy of being able to carry a Queen’s Speech vote (the de facto confidence measure which establishes whether or not a government is able to command a majority in the House of Commons).

In this context, the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists – with their combined total of 9 MPs – will likely be crucial.  In left-right terms, these are not natural allies of the Conservatives and would be unlikely to consistently vote with them, but might be persuaded to abstain in return for a guarantee of no cuts (or less severe cuts) in funding for the devolved governments.  If the Nationalists did abstain, the Conservatives would be able to carry the Queen’s Speech with a majority of 3 (assuming no individual mavericks in any of the coalition partners voted against their party line).

On this basis, I would argue that a minority Conservative-led administration, sustained in office by the active support of the DUP and the passive support of the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, is perhaps the most likely outcome.  Since the Nationalists always abstain on legislation that applies only to England, the Conservatives wouldn’t have to negotiate their way through the bulk of their England-only legislation.  That said, a majority of 3 is incredibly tight, and is likely to result in a government that can only pass legislation that has a very broad consensus within their own party.

It remains entirely possible (maybe even probable) that the Conservatives will arrange some kind of a deal with the Lib Dems – most likely Bill-by-Bill support or abstention in return for a speedy referendum on a form of Proportional Representation acceptable to the Lib Dems.  (The Lib Dems are not fans of the system of PR proposed by Labour.)  It’s also not entirely beyond the realm of the plausible that there might be a formal Lib-Con pact, but I think that’s unlikely.  It would be an attractive idea for the Conservatives in some ways, as it would put them at the head of a comfortable majority.  From the Lib Dems’ perspective, though, if they can get the referendum on the basis of an informal arrangement, it’s not clear what they would gain from going into formal coalition (it’s highly unlikely David Cameron would be prepared to offer active support for PR, because under a PR system the influence of the Tories would be drastically curtailed).

It’s also just about possible that Labour might try to form a very broadly-based coalition, calling it something like a National Government.  But they would require the active support of the Lib Dems (i.e. not just abstention) to overcome the combined forces of the Conservatives and the DUP.  To be sure of carrying their legislation in the Commons they would also need, at a minimum, the passive support (i.e. abstention) of the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists and Caroline Lucas of the Greens.  Even then, they would only have a majority of one, making them exceptionally vulnerable to dissent (or even an MP just being ill in hospital, or trapped abroad because of, say, a volcanic ash delay).  I really can’t see this possibility playing out, and to be honest put Gordon Brown’s continuing insistence that it’s a possibility down to sheer bravado.

That’s what I’m thinking at the moment, anyway.

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2 Responses to Election 2010: Forming a government

  1. G says:

    Sorry but you would need 323 to have a majority. 650 seats, and 5 SF seats empty makes 645 votes, which would need at least 323 vs 322 to pass.

    The thing with PC or SNP is that they are both anti-Labour and anti-Tory. So they actually will hold the balance of power as neither Tory-DUP or Lab-Lib would win.

  2. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Hi, G, and thanks for commenting.

    I understand where you’re coming from. If this was a hypothetical scenario, then you (and Michael Crick, who made the same mistake on Newsnight last night) would be right. If there are 650 MPs, and 5 don’t show up, that makes for a new total of 645 MPs. Dividing 645 by 2 gives 322.5, so it does seem like a minimum of 323 is required for an overall majority.

    The problem with applying arithmetical logic logic to the real situation is that these are not hypothetical MPs. They’re Sinn Fein MPs and we know that, if they were to take their seats, they would be on the opposition benches. Applying straightforward arithmetic to this situation has the effect of splitting the advantage of the missing Sinn Fein MPs evenly between the government and opposition, when in fact the advantage is all to the (potential) government.

    It might help to try and picture the House of Commons in your head here. The Conservatives and their certain allies the DUP are sitting together on the government benches. All the other parties (Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru, SDLP, Green, Alliance) are on the opposition side. To have an overall majority in this scenario, the government benches need to have a minimum of 326 people on them, in order to make sure that there are no more than 324 people on the opposition benches.

    Now picture the HoC without Sinn Fein. With Sinn Fein’s 5 MPs gone, the 5 Conservative/ DUP MPs who were required to match them are no longer needed. Because the opposition has breen weakened by 5, the government can also afford to be weakened by 5 and still be capable of outvoting the combined might of all the other parties. This is why the absence of Sinn Fein from the Commons reduces the target for a Conservative-led majority from 326 to 321.

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