It’s Lib Dem health minister Norman Lamb’s declaration that he doesn’t see Ed Miliband “as a prime minister” that has attracted most attention at the party’s conference in Glasgow. But it’s worth noting something else that the potential leadership candidate said. He became the first Lib Dem MP to publicly outline what one recently described to me as “the nightmare scenario”: Labour finishing first on seats but second on votes, and the Lib Dems finishing third on seats but fourth on votes (a scenario I looked at in my column in July).
Lamb said: “There is the possibility that you could have Labour as the largest number of seats but the Tories as the largest number of votes. If there is any possibility of Labour in that situation going into coalition with the Lib Dems – the parties coming second and fourth – you would have zero honeymoon”.
Based on the current state of the polls, a large number of Lib Dem MPs are resigned to finishing fourth to Ukip on votes, but rightly believe that their party’s more efficiently distributed support means they will finish third on seats (the irony being that they will profit from the electoral system they have spent their lives campagining against). In the case of Labour, while it’s plausible that the party could finish second to the Tories on votes, the Conservatives need a lead of around three points before they become the largest party on seats. This is partly due to the unreformed constituency boundaries, but also because turnout in Labour seats tends to be lower than in Tory ones (with the result that it takes fewer votes on average to elect a Labour MP).
Should this scenario come to pass, how would Labour and the Lib Dems respond? There is no constitutional bar on the party that finishes second entering government, as the Tories did in 1951 and as Labour did in Februrary 1974 (and as others in Europe have done). Having long opposed electoral reform, the Tories would also have no grounds for complaint (although expect them to resurrect the issue of boundary reform). But as Lamb suggests, a government established on this basis would suffer immediate legitimacy problems: “You would be attacked from the word go and it would be very, very hard to sustain it.” The Lib Dems could, of course, side with the Tories, but, depending on the result, this would risk the government being left with a fragile majority, or no majority at all. It is these quandaries that prompt an increasing number of MPs from all sides to warn that a stable administration could be impossible to form after May 2015.
The one hope, perhaps, is that “the nightmare scenario” would finally deal a death blow to first-past-the-post.