David Cameron outside No.10 Downing Street on the day parliament was dissolved for the election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour denounce Cameron's plan to "cling to power" even if he lacks a majority

The opposition seek to stop the PM surviving if it becomes clear he could not command the confidence of the Commons.

In recent days the Conservatives have made it clear that if they are the single largest party after the election, David Cameron will seek to survive as prime minister - even if it is clear that he lacks the Commons support needed to govern. The aim is to delegitimise a Labour minority government at birth by declaring victory and framing Cameron as the only acceptable PM. (Though some Tories hope they could persuade enough Labour MPs to abstain in any vote.)

A Conservative cabinet minister told the Sunday Times: "It’s a race to be the largest party. We will say: 'We’re legitimate, we’re the largest party, we should carry on.' If necessary, dare the others to vote down a Conservative government. We’ll bring forward a vote of confidence on our Queen’s Speech so they do the deed in plain sight, rather than meekly saying, 'I suppose your numbers add up, goodbye'."

In response, Labour have denounced Cameron for planning to "cling to power" even if it becomes clear he will be defeated in the Commons. An aide told the New Statesman: "All the noise coming out of the mouths of David Cameron and Nick Clegg is about how they can cling on to power even if their coalition loses its majority. Clegg has shown his true colours – he personally wants to get back into bed with Cameron even at the price of betraying the Lib Dems’ fundamental principle of protecting our future in Europe. "

The aide added: "David Cameron is showing he is in an incredibly weak position. He won’t talk about the big questions in this election, how to create an economy which works for working families, how to sustain our NHS, how to get a better future for young people. Instead, he is trying to focus all attention in these final days on the process question of what happens after the election rather the decision people have to make in this election.

"Just like he did on the morning of 19 September – where Cameron had the opportunity to speak for the whole country after the Scottish referendum – he is instead showing he is driven by internal weakness and external electoral pressure to act only on behalf of the Tory party."

The political attractions of the Tories' gameplan are obvious but it would ride roughshod over constitutional convention. The relevant passage from the Cabinet Manual (Paragraph 2.12) states:

Paragraph 2.12  Parliaments with no overall majority in the House of Commons

Where an election does not result in an overall majority for a single party, the incumbent government remains in office unless and until the Prime minister tenders his or her resignation and the Government’s resignation to the Sovereign.  An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.

The key line is that an incumbent government is "expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command" the confidence of the House. Therefore, if Labour, the SNP (who have pledged to vote down the Conservatives) and other anti-Tory parties have a majority of seats, Cameron should resign rather than invite inevitable defeat in the Commons.

The Cabinet Manual also makes it clear that the person most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House (in this case, Ed Miliband) then becomes prime minister - even if it is not certain they would be able to do so. Paragraph 2.8 states: "Prime Ministers hold office unless and until they resign. If the Prime Minister resigns on behalf of the Government, the Sovereign will invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government."

By convention, then, Miliband would become PM without the need for any formal deal with the SNP - on whom Labour's majority would likely depend.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser