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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era