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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Hilary Benn has been sacked. What happens now?

Jeremy Corbyn has sacked Hilary Benn, effectively challenging his critics to put up or shut up.

Hilary Benn been sacked from the shadow cabinet, following an article in the Observer reporting that the former shadow foreign secretary had told Labour MPs he would challenge Jeremy Corbyn should Corbyn lose the vote of confidence in his leadership that the PLP are due to discuss on Monday.

Anti-Corbyn plotters are convinced that they have the numbers to pass the no confidence motion in Corbyn’s leadership. Passing that motion, however, would not formally trigger either Corbyn’s resignation or a leadership challenge.

The word from Corbyn’s inner circle is that he would remain in post even if he were to lose the confidence vote, and dare his opponents to collect the 50 names they would need to trigger a leadership challenge.

Should that come about, Corbyn’s allies are certain that they would triumph over whoever ran against him. As one senior source said “they lost really badly in September and that’s not gonna change”.

Labour’s rebels are convinced that they have the numbers necessary to trigger a formal challenge to Corbyn’s leadership.

What happens next is fraught as the relevant clause in Labour’s rulebook is unhelpfully vague: 

“ii. Where there is no vacancy, nominations may be sought by potential challengers each year prior to the annual session of party conference. In this case any nomination must be supported by 20 per cent of the PLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.”

The question that no-one is certain of the answer to: whether the challenged leader would have to seek nominations as well or if they would be on the ballot as by right. My understanding is that the legal advice that Corbyn’s critics have is that Corbyn would not automatically have a place on the ballot. But Jolyon Maugham, a lawyer who writes regularly for the New Statesman, looked over the clause for us and believes that he would.

More important than the legal basis, though, is what the party’s ruling National Executive Committee, which would rule on whether Corbyn had to seek nominations to stand, believes.

Although Corbyn has received the backing of 12 of Labour’s affiliated general secretaries, a well-placed source tells me that they are confident the NEC would rule that Corbyn will need to seek nominations if he is to stand again.

But control over the NEC is finely balanced, and could shift decisively towards Corbyn following this year’s elections to the NEC; one reason why Corbyn’s opponents are keen to strike now.

In that situation, Corbyn’s allies believe they can secure the 50 nominations he would need – the threshold has been raised due to a rule change giving Labour members of the European Parliament the same nominating powers as their cousins in Westminster – thanks to a combination of ideological support for Corbyn and pressure from the party’s grassroots. Senior sources believe that once Corbyn reached shouting distance of 50 nominations, the bulk of the shadow cabinet would quickly fall in line. Another estimates that the “vast majority” of the PLP accept Corbyn requires more time and that the plotting is the result of “a rump” of MPs.

But Corbyn’s critics believe that the European result, which saw Labour voters reject the party line in large numbers, has left Labour MPs with large majorities in the party’s ex-industrial seats more spooked by their voters than by their activists, putting them in the same group as those MPs with small majorities. (The two groups who currently pose the biggest danger to Corbyn are MPs who are old enough to be eligible to collect their pension at or before the next election, and MPs with majorities of under 2,000.) 

Who's right? Much depends on the disposition of Labour's 20 MEPs. Prior to Britain's Brexit vote, they were believed to be the most sensitive to the concerns of the party's activists, as Labour members vote on the order of the party's list, making anti-Corbynites vulnerable. Now all 20 MEPs are out of a job at, or before, the next European election regardless, the question is whether they decide to keep Corbyn off the ballot, or try to curry favour with Corbyn's supporters in the membership prior to making a bid for seats at Westminster. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.