With the possible exception of his Sky News counterpart, Adam Boulton, the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, looked like the most shocked man in Britain following Gordon Brown's Downing Street announcement yesterday afternoon.
"Audacious" was the word Robinson used on the television and on his blog, but you suspected something stronger was going through his mind. Since last Friday, Robinson has barely deviated from a line that has David Cameron in No 10 as a result of either a formal or an informal arrangement with the Lib Dems. A rainbow coalition was not in his script.
It may not come to pass, but it is strange that the possibility of a Lib-Lab deal wasn't given more airspace until yesterday.
In a post last night, Robinson outlined all the obstacles in the way of Brown's power play. He asked:
- is it legitimate for Gordon Brown and Labour to stay in office, having lost this election?
- is it right for a new prime minister to be chosen, not by voters, but by Labour Party members?
Well, I guess it depends how you interpret the words "legitimate" and "right", but constitutionally the answer to both questions is an emphatic "Yes". Here is Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University, writing in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman to provide the historical context:
The conventions reflect the fundamental principle of parliamentary government: that parliament decides who should govern. A prime minister in office is not defeated until the Commons votes him out. Until 1868, it was common practice for incumbents to test the opinion of parliament after a general election. That year, Disraeli became the first to break from this tradition -- he thought it pointless to meet parliament when his opponents enjoyed an overall majority.
With the development of a two-party system, it became customary for incumbents to resign if the election resulted in an overall majority for the opposition. But, in 1885-86, 1892 and 1923-24, with hung parliaments, prime ministers -- Conservative in each case -- waited until parliament had met and then produced a Queen's Speech that was, in effect, a vote of confidence. It is for parliament, not the bankers or the Daily Mail, to decide who should govern.
Robinson signs off the post by asking of Nick Clegg:
Does he now stick to his chosen path and do a deal with the Conservatives to the fury of many in his party or does he switch to Labour, risking the wrath of those who will accuse him of creating a "coalition of losers"?
"His chosen path"? Clegg always said he would talk to the Conservatives first, as the party with the "strongest mandate" to govern. But a corollary of this is not necessarily a "deal with the Conservatives".