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.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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