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4 May 2010updated 12 Oct 2023 10:42am

How many seats does Cameron really need to govern?

Answer: not as many as you think.

By George Eaton

The latest polls continue to show David Cameron roughly 50 seats short of the 326 he needs for an overall majority. Even if the Tories perform disproportionately well in the key Labour marginals, Cameron will still struggle to cross the line.

Headlines claiming that the final Ipsos MORI marginals poll shows the Tories are on course for a clear victory can be safely ignored. The survey, of 57 Lab-Con battlegrounds, did not include the 23 Lib Dem marginals Cameron needs to win for a majority of one. Various polls have shown that the Tories will struggle to win any of these and, in the wake of Cleggmania, it’s possible that the Lib Dems will even start to make gains from Cameron.

Yet several factors mean that the Tory leader may not need as many as 326 MPs to govern effectively. First, Sinn Fein MPs, of whom there are now five, refuse to take their seats in Westminster on republican grounds. Second, with the new Ulster Unionist-Conservative alliance, any MP elected under the joint banner will take the Tory whip.

The Ulster Unionist Party may have no MPs (its sole remaining MP, Sylvia Hermon, recently resigned over the Tory pact), but it is expected to make some gains at the Democratic Unionist Party’s expense. The combined absence of Sinn Fein and the UUP presence could hand Cameron the equivalent of an extra seven or eight Commons allies in total.

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But at best this still leaves him 20-30 seats short of an overall majority. However, the Tory leader may not be as fearful of leading a minority government as some suggest. As Paul Waugh points out, many of Cameron’s policy pledges do not require legislation:

Cutting the number of ministers? Doesn’t require legislation. Merging departments? Doesn’t require legislation. Cutting budgets, back-office staff? Doesn’t require legislation. Setting up a new “war cabinet” or shifting policy on Iran? Doesn’t need legislation. Cutting bureaucracy in the police, schools and NHS? Can be done through secondary legislation, ministerial directive or guidance.

Tory strategists are comforted by the experience of Scotland, where, against the odds, Alex Salmond’s minority government has performed well and passed a barely revised Budget.

There seems little reason to doubt that Cameron will be in a strong position to form a minority government, with the Lib Dems offering “confidence and supply” in a hung parliament.

Indeed, as James points out, the bookmaker Paddy Power has already started paying out on a Tory victory. This is one publicity stunt I don’t think they’ll come to regret.

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