How many seats does Cameron really need to govern?

Answer: not as many as you think.

The latest polls continue to show David Cameron roughly 50 seats short of the 326 he needs for an overall majority. Even if the Tories perform disproportionately well in the key Labour marginals, Cameron will still struggle to cross the line.

Headlines claiming that the final Ipsos MORI marginals poll shows the Tories are on course for a clear victory can be safely ignored. The survey, of 57 Lab-Con battlegrounds, did not include the 23 Lib Dem marginals Cameron needs to win for a majority of one. Various polls have shown that the Tories will struggle to win any of these and, in the wake of Cleggmania, it's possible that the Lib Dems will even start to make gains from Cameron.

Yet several factors mean that the Tory leader may not need as many as 326 MPs to govern effectively. First, Sinn Fein MPs, of whom there are now five, refuse to take their seats in Westminster on republican grounds. Second, with the new Ulster Unionist-Conservative alliance, any MP elected under the joint banner will take the Tory whip.

The Ulster Unionist Party may have no MPs (its sole remaining MP, Sylvia Hermon, recently resigned over the Tory pact), but it is expected to make some gains at the Democratic Unionist Party's expense. The combined absence of Sinn Fein and the UUP presence could hand Cameron the equivalent of an extra seven or eight Commons allies in total.

But at best this still leaves him 20-30 seats short of an overall majority. However, the Tory leader may not be as fearful of leading a minority government as some suggest. As Paul Waugh points out, many of Cameron's policy pledges do not require legislation:

Cutting the number of ministers? Doesn't require legislation. Merging departments? Doesn't require legislation. Cutting budgets, back-office staff? Doesn't require legislation. Setting up a new "war cabinet" or shifting policy on Iran? Doesn't need legislation. Cutting bureaucracy in the police, schools and NHS? Can be done through secondary legislation, ministerial directive or guidance.

Tory strategists are comforted by the experience of Scotland, where, against the odds, Alex Salmond's minority government has performed well and passed a barely revised Budget.

There seems little reason to doubt that Cameron will be in a strong position to form a minority government, with the Lib Dems offering "confidence and supply" in a hung parliament.

Indeed, as James points out, the bookmaker Paddy Power has already started paying out on a Tory victory. This is one publicity stunt I don't think they'll come to regret.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.