Not since 1910 have British voters returned two successive hung parliaments. After the events of recent months, few in Westminster expect this to remain case after the next general election. At no moment since 2010 have the Conservatives and Labour appeared less capable of achieving a Commons majority. The opposition’s poll lead has withered to a few points; some surveys suggest it has eroded entirely. But the Tories show no sign of the momentum required to win the victory that eluded them in 2010. Labour’s average vote share declined by 9 per cent between October 2012 and October 2014 but the Conservatives’ rose by just 1 per cent. Rather than defecting to the incumbent party, voters have scattered in multiple directions: to Ukip, to the SNP, to the Greens, to the “don’t knows”.
Labour aides maintain that they, unlike the Tories, can still hope to win a majority. On this, most agree with them. For all the derision directed at Ed Miliband’s alleged “35 per cent strategy”, few recall that Tony Blair achieved a majority of 66 seats in 2005 on an equivalent share of the vote. As one MP observed to me: “We could win on even less”. That the party continues to outperform its national poll ratings in the marginal constituencies it needs to secure for victory is a consistent source of optimism. But because of the narrowness of its present advantage, the threat posed to its 40 Scottish seats by the nationalist insurgency and the possibility of a swing back to the Tories from Ukip most MPs would settle for supplanting the Conservatives as the single largest party. Others fear a far worse fate. “We’re going over the cliff with him,” one former minister lamented in reference to the coup that never was against Miliband.
It is the Liberal Democrats who aspire to be the main beneficiaries of another hung parliament by re-entering government, even as a much depleted force. For the leadership, if not the activists, this would ideally take the form of a renewal of vows with the Conservatives. But such is the fragmentation of the electorate and the enfeebled state of the party that some question whether a partnership with the Lib Dems would offer a route to the 326 seats required for a Commons majority. In these circumstances, the possibility of a post-2015 minority government now inspires greater discussion than that of another coalition.
One senior Conservative backbencher told me that having promised Tory MPs a vote on a second deal with the Lib Dems, David Cameron would “struggle” to win their approval. The Prime Minister, he argued, should run a minority administration (an option many believe he should have pursued in 2010) and seek parliamentary support for populist measures such as an EU referendum on an individual basis. This would culminate in a snap election aimed at securing a majority.
Labour is even less amenable to the prospect of coalition than the Conservatives. Four years on from the election, most MPs maintain an undiminished tribal loathing of the Lib Dems. One shadow cabinet minister told me: “Clegg or no Clegg, I wouldn’t enter government with them.” The party membership and the trade unions are still more hostile. Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, the country’s biggest union and Labour’s largest donor, has publicly warned of a cut in funding and even of disaffiliation if the party forms a coalition with the Lib Dems. His threats are unlikely to be casually dismissed. “Len’s not bluffing,” one left-winger told me.
Like the Tories, many in Labour see political advantage in a minority administration that could introduce the most popular items of its policy programme – an energy price freeze, a higher minimum wage, a cap on rent increases – and invite voters to provide it with a mandate for more at a second election. As one shadow minister noted: “We’ve done it before”. The example of Harold Wilson, who held two snap elections – in 1966 and October 1974 – and won a majority on both occasions is increasingly cited by MPs.
The common rejoinder is that this executive manoeuvre is no longer possible after the introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which requires a two-thirds majority for a dissolution. But this overlooks a crucial caveat: that an election will be held if no alternative government is formed 14 days after a vote of no confidence. This creates the potential for a minority administration to assemble a simple parliamentary majority for a second contest. Were opposition parties to resist this move or to seek to take power in the intervening two weeks, they would stand accused of defying the electorate.
Others in Labour, however, spooked by the cost of a second election and the Tories’ greater financial muscle, draw inspiration from the SNP, which governed for a full term as a minority administration before achieving outright victory in 2011.
The Lib Dems have long threatened to bring down any party that has the “arrogance” (in the words of one strategist) to try and rule without a majority. But some can see the advantage of a period outside of government that allows their war-weary party to convalesce. Significantly, Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president and the most likely successor to Clegg as leader, told me that his party “should not rule out” the option of tolerating a minority administration. He added, in reference to the surge in support for the SNP, that any coalition may need to be composed of “three parties, rather than two”.
The hung parliament of 2010 was one that few foresaw until the final stages of the election. Most went on to predict that the resultant coalition would collapse long before the five-year term had elapsed. Having failed to anticipate the constitutional innovations of the past, it would be careless to dismiss those that may lie in the future.