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What the hell happens next? Your post-election questions answered

As we head into election day, the polls are still neck-and-neck – meaning that neither Labour nor the Tory party is likely to be able to form a majority government. So, what happens now?

It looks like none of the parties will win outright. This is uncharted territory!

Not true. The outcome is no excuse for politicians and civil servants to claim that the UK is “unaccustomed” to hung parliaments. Of the 20 Westminster governments formed in the 20th century, five were coalitions and five were minority governments. And, of course, the parties muddled through a hung parliament in 2010.

If no one achieves a majority, who wins?

The party whose leader can command the “confidence” of the House of Commons – which basically means securing enough support from the smaller parties to form a viable government. It’s a common misconception that the leader of the party with the most seats automatically becomes prime minister.

But won’t David Cameron get first dibs at making a deal, as the incumbent?

There is no such convention. The Prime Minister will remain in Downing Street until it becomes clear who can lead the next administration, but making deals and speaking to the smaller parties will be a free-for-all. And neither is it the case that the party to win the most seats has the first shot at forming a government, or that the smaller parties are obliged to speak to that party before any others.

So if Labour or the Tories think they can form a workable government, what will it look like?

We could see another formal coalition, like the one we have now – though there is less appetite for that this time, and the Lib Dems are unlikely to win enough seats to rule alongside either the Tories or Labour with a majority. A confidence-and-supply arrangement (where a smaller party backs government bills on a case-by-case basis) is another possible form of partnership. A minority government ruling alone is looking increasingly likely, though it is generally seen as undesirable. We could even see a minority coalition, as New Zealand did between 1999 and 2008. All of these are dependent on the electoral arithmetic and each of the parties’ “red lines” for negotiating a deal.

Who’s running the country during these deals?

The “caretaker convention” allows government ministers to remain in place, though little official business can be done. Cameron would stay in office, signing off initiatives and stopping ongoing agreements from lapsing, but there would be no new policies, contracts or public announcements. The civil service would remain in the more exotically named “purdah”, operating under specific professional restrictions on conducting government business.

How will the new government test itself to see if it works?

It is for the parties themselves to determine who among them is best placed to govern. Once they settle on which party is most likely to be able to govern, its leader goes to the Queen to be appointed prime minister. But the first real test is the Queen’s Speech. This is when the new government puts its legislative programme to a vote in the Commons. It is currently scheduled for 27 May.

What if they haven’t decided by then?

If there is still deadlock by 27 May then the Queen will want to stay out of it, and the Leader of the House of Lords (Baroness Stowell) will make the speech instead. One of the parties will have to dare to give things a go. If its Queen’s Speech fell, it would almost certainly face an immediate no-confidence vote.

And if it lost the no-confidence vote?

Then the leader would be compelled to resign as prime minister and advise the Queen to invite the opposition to attempt to form a government. If an alternative administration isn't formed within 14 days, there would have to be a second general election.

How likely is a second election?

If the electoral arithmetic is irredeemably hung, we could end up with a second election this year. But it is unlikely, thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Support from at least two-thirds of the House of Commons would be needed for a motion calling for an early election. Or a majority would be required to pass a vote of no-confidence. It would be very difficult for a minority government to engineer either scenario, or to repeal the Act.

Does the Queen step in at any point to help to decide who governs?

No, not at all. The Queen’s private secretary will be in contact with Downing Street and will keep her updated, but she will be in Windsor and unreachable by politicians.

 

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder