Like it or not, the Tories and Labour are going to have get used to sharing power

With hung parliaments likely to become the norm, the kind of strop that Tory MPs are now throwing will be utterly counterproductive.

There's an interesting piece from Dan Hodges today in which he suggests that many Tories are so sick of having to govern in coalition with the Lib Dems that they may actually prefer to be in opposition.

This is a phenomenon that I witnessed first hand in the run up to the 2010 general election. At the time I was doing a lot of media and in one of my radio studio appearances I was chatting to a right-wing commentator who I knew from previous conversations was considering a potential future career as a Tory MP. The subject of electoral reform came up and he stated in blunt terms that if first-past-the-post was ever abandoned for Westminster he would quit politics. For him it was not enough to have power, it had to be absolute power for his party alone.

As a long-standing pluralist, I find this attitude hard to understand. Some might suggest that as a Lib Dem I would say that. But I thought this long before I joined the party. Compromising with colleagues is something that almost everybody does all the time in the "real world". Extending this across party boundaries within politics should not really be controversial and yet, somehow, it is. Well, in this country at least. Most other countries have political systems that ensure the most likely outcome is the sharing of power in various ways. Very few have such a brutal winner-takes-all system as the United Kingdom.

Even under first-past-the-post, it seems likely that the smaller parties will continue to eat away at the long-term vote share for the big two. Indeed, across the world the "Westminster model" is now usually returning hung parliaments. This could well lead to more opportunities for coalitions in the UK. If this is correct, Conservative and Labour MPs and activists are going to have to get used to sharing power. The sort of monumental strop that numerous backbench Tory MPs are now throwing will be utterly counterproductive.

The idea of working with one's political opponents has been anathema to the main parties for the last 60 years. The "winner" of the election gets a majority of seats and pushes through what they want. That has been the basis of our politics for so long that it is a genuine culture shock to find ourselves in a world where constant compromise is necessary. That is as true for the Lib Dems as for anyone else, which is perhaps surprising given they are the party of electoral reform - but that shows how deeply embedded our previous settlement was. We need to see a culture change in this country's body politic. Instead of compromise with political opponents being seen as weak, we need to accept it as an inevitable part of policy making. No one party has a monopoly on good ideas and our country can actually be strengthened by ensuring that more than one political philosophy and tradition has input into that process.

And if we can all accept this, then maybe next time we have a coalition the MPs that form the backbenches will have a slightly more realistic expectation of what can be achieved and perhaps be grateful for the opportunity to contribute, rather than equate compromise with betrayal of their principles.

Mark Thompson is a political blogger and commentator who edits the award-winning Mark Thompson's Blog and is on Twitter: @MarkReckons

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Photograph: Getty Images.
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.