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25 April 2010

What will the Conservatives do if Labour comes third in votes but first in seats?

Will they have a leg to stand on?

By Mehdi Hasan

The top Tory blogger Iain Dale notes Labour’s third place in “virtually every poll” and asks: “Isn’t that a BIG STORY?”

He adds:

The even bigger story is that Labour comes third but Gordon Brown still clings to the premiership. And I’m not talking football.

If that happened I can foresee marches on Downing Street. And I’ll happily be at the front!

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For me, the bigger story is how Labour could indeed end up third in the share of the popular vote but still emerge top in number of seats. What, if this happens, will the Conservatives do? What will David Cameron’s strategists be telling him “the line” is on the morning of 7 May?

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I asked a senior Tory-supporting journalist what he would advise Cameron to say in such an event and he just shrugged his shoulders. The Tories could hardly proclaim it an outrage — even though, to be honest, it would be — or cry “We wuz robbed!” or organise protest marches, seeing how they have remained the only party committed to defending the current dysfunctional, disproportionate first-past-the-post voting system. They would not have a leg to stand on. And anyone who saw Liam Fox squirming on the Daily Politics last week as Andrew Neil put this point to him will be aware of how tough a spot the Tories would be in.

Might Cameron consider electoral reform in exchange for a Labour-blocking deal with the Lib Dems? The Observer seems to think so — the headline on its interview with the Tory leader is: “David Cameron leaves door open for poll deal with Liberal Democrats“. The paper’s political duo, Andrew Rawnsley and Toby Helm, write:

But when pressed on whether, in the event of a hung parliament, he would be prepared to discuss the Lib Dems’ central demand for electoral reform — something he has always opposed until now — he declines to rule it out. When it was put to him that refusal to move on the issue could mean the Lib Dems teaming up with Labour to push through electoral reform anyway, the Tory leader says: “We think this is an important issue.”

Cameron’s comments suggest the Tories may now be prepared to put reform of the voting system on the table in coalition talks, rather than allow the issue to be a “deal breaker”. After being asked four times to rule out such discussions on electoral reform, Cameron said: “Put the question in, you know, Serbo-Croat, if you want to — but you’re going to get the same answer.” Labour has promised a referendum on the alternative vote system.

There are indeed Lib Dems close to Nick Clegg who have privately suggested that Cameron might be willing to put electoral reform “on the table”. But my two problems with the Observer story are: 1) Cameron tells Rawnsley and Helm in the same interview: “I want us to keep the current system that enables you to throw a government out of office. That is my view.” It’s a line he has taken time and again during this campaign and he would look ridiculously opportunistic and cynical if he dropped the Tories’ centuries-old commitment to first-past-the-post at the first sign that Labour might be able to cling on to power in a hung parliament. And 2) his own party wouldn’t agree to such a deal.

Cameron, for short-term, tactical reasons (ie, his own survival as party leader), might (might!) be willing to entertain the idea of some form of compromise on electoral reform in order to get his foot through the door of No 10 Downing Street, but his party, for long-term, strategic reasons, would remain implacably opposed to electoral reform. The Tories would argue (in agreement with Polly Toynbee) that proportional representation would deny them their “divine” right to rule alone in future and would keep the party out of power for much longer, with Labour and the Lib Dems more likely to form “progressive” coalitions in office under PR.

So here’s a question for Iain Dale: if Brown “clings” on to power after 6 May, despite coming third, and you join the front of a march on Downing Street, will you be carrying a placard proclaiming, “Time for PR”? If not, why not?