What will the Conservatives do if Labour comes third in votes but first in seats?

Will they have a leg to stand on?

The top Tory blogger Iain Dale notes Labour's third place in "virtually every poll" and asks: "Isn't that a BIG STORY?"

He adds:

The even bigger story is that Labour comes third but Gordon Brown still clings to the premiership. And I'm not talking football.

If that happened I can foresee marches on Downing Street. And I'll happily be at the front!

For me, the bigger story is how Labour could indeed end up third in the share of the popular vote but still emerge top in number of seats. What, if this happens, will the Conservatives do? What will David Cameron's strategists be telling him "the line" is on the morning of 7 May?

I asked a senior Tory-supporting journalist what he would advise Cameron to say in such an event and he just shrugged his shoulders. The Tories could hardly proclaim it an outrage -- even though, to be honest, it would be -- or cry "We wuz robbed!" or organise protest marches, seeing how they have remained the only party committed to defending the current dysfunctional, disproportionate first-past-the-post voting system. They would not have a leg to stand on. And anyone who saw Liam Fox squirming on the Daily Politics last week as Andrew Neil put this point to him will be aware of how tough a spot the Tories would be in.

Might Cameron consider electoral reform in exchange for a Labour-blocking deal with the Lib Dems? The Observer seems to think so -- the headline on its interview with the Tory leader is: "David Cameron leaves door open for poll deal with Liberal Democrats". The paper's political duo, Andrew Rawnsley and Toby Helm, write:

But when pressed on whether, in the event of a hung parliament, he would be prepared to discuss the Lib Dems' central demand for electoral reform -- something he has always opposed until now -- he declines to rule it out. When it was put to him that refusal to move on the issue could mean the Lib Dems teaming up with Labour to push through electoral reform anyway, the Tory leader says: "We think this is an important issue."

Cameron's comments suggest the Tories may now be prepared to put reform of the voting system on the table in coalition talks, rather than allow the issue to be a "deal breaker". After being asked four times to rule out such discussions on electoral reform, Cameron said: "Put the question in, you know, Serbo-Croat, if you want to -- but you're going to get the same answer." Labour has promised a referendum on the alternative vote system.

There are indeed Lib Dems close to Nick Clegg who have privately suggested that Cameron might be willing to put electoral reform "on the table". But my two problems with the Observer story are: 1) Cameron tells Rawnsley and Helm in the same interview: "I want us to keep the current system that enables you to throw a government out of office. That is my view." It's a line he has taken time and again during this campaign and he would look ridiculously opportunistic and cynical if he dropped the Tories' centuries-old commitment to first-past-the-post at the first sign that Labour might be able to cling on to power in a hung parliament. And 2) his own party wouldn't agree to such a deal.

Cameron, for short-term, tactical reasons (ie, his own survival as party leader), might (might!) be willing to entertain the idea of some form of compromise on electoral reform in order to get his foot through the door of No 10 Downing Street, but his party, for long-term, strategic reasons, would remain implacably opposed to electoral reform. The Tories would argue (in agreement with Polly Toynbee) that proportional representation would deny them their "divine" right to rule alone in future and would keep the party out of power for much longer, with Labour and the Lib Dems more likely to form "progressive" coalitions in office under PR.

So here's a question for Iain Dale: if Brown "clings" on to power after 6 May, despite coming third, and you join the front of a march on Downing Street, will you be carrying a placard proclaiming, "Time for PR"? If not, why not?

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Brexit has transformed Nicola Sturgeon into a defender of the status quo

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is saying the right things, but she may not be able to deliver.

Since 2014, Scotland has been split between "neverenders" who constantly agitate for another vote on independence, and those who complain of referendum fatigue.

This latter emotion appeared to be in the ascendancy during the EU referendum last week, when Scottish voters failed to turn out in large enough numbers to push the Remain vote over the 50% threshold. 

And First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has framed her arguments accordingly. 

Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, the Scottish National Party leader portrayed herself as battling for the status quo and declared "independence is not my starting point". 

Describing the process of leaving the European Union as "deeply damaging", she said: "The status quo we voted for doesn't exist."

Sturgeon said there was "no vacuum of leadership in Scotland" and added: "My priority is to seek to protect Scotland's interests in uncharted territory."

As well as redefining Scottish independence, Sturgeon is attempting to redefine the rules of the debate. Quizzed on whether she could actually take a unilateral approach to negotiations, she claimed: "The reality is there are no rules, there is no precedent. What will happen from here on in is a matter of negotiation."

Batting away reports that Brussels would not want to sit down with her, she again outlined plans to meet with EU institutions over the coming weeks. 

There is no doubt the First Minister has captured the zeitgeist in Scotland, the most Europhile part of the UK. A full 62 per cent of voters opted to remain in the EU, compared to the UK average of 48.1 per cent. 

But even as she vows to protect the status quo, Sturgeon may find the practical details of "protecting Scotland's interests" are a stumbling block. 

She was unable to say much more about the currency question apart from suggesting it was a "moral issue", and that the borders question would affect Northern Ireland as well. 

During the Scottish referendum, Sturgeon and her colleagues tried to play down the prospect of land borders and an adoption of the euro. Whether Scottish voters' attachment to the EU could include such impositions remains to be seen.