Why Miliband has ruled out a coalition with the SNP - but hasn't ruled out a pact

Rejecting any arrangement with the SNP would make it far harder for the Labour leader to become prime minister in a hung parliament. 

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After several weeks of deliberation, Ed Miliband has formally ruled out a post-election coalition with the SNP. He told a People's Question Time event in Pudsey this lunchtime: "Labour will not go into coalition government with the SNP. There will be no SNP ministers in any government I lead."

He also said: "The Tories, the party that haven't won a majority for over 20 years, are now running a misleading campaign based on the idea of a Labour-SNP coalition. As I said on Thursday night, this idea is nonsense.  It will not happen. There are big differences between us. Not just on the integrity of the United Kingdom and another referendum but on fair funding between the countries of the UK. And on fair taxes. In continuing to repeat this claim, the Conservative Party and David Cameron are simply trying to scare people."

The move is significant: this is the first time that Miliband has commented on post-election outcomes and implicitly conceded that Labour may not win a majority. Party sources emphasise, however, that this is a specific response to a "protracted Tory scare campaign" (recent Conservative posters have featured Miliband in Alex Salmond's pocket) and is not to be regarded as a precedent. Aides say that Miliband does not intend to spend "the next eight weeks" discussing what may or may not happen in the event of a hung parliament, highlighting the Tories' refusal to rule out a deal with Ukip despite Nigel Farage tabling a formal offer.

But Miliband's announcement is also less significant than it may first appear. The SNP has long made it clear that it does not want a formal coalition with Labour and is instead seeking a confidence and supply arrangement (under which it agrees to support Queen's Speeches and Budgets in return for policy concessions). It is this option that Miliband has conspicuously failed to rule out - and wisely so. For to do so would be to run the risk that Labour could be the largest party in a hung parliament but that he could fail to become prime minister.

It is possible, and even probable, that the SNP will be the third largest party in seats following the election (with some pollsters predicting they could win more than 50 of Scotland's 59 constituencies). The nationalists have repeatedly stated that they will not prop up a Conservative government (though they have not pledged to vote down a Tory Queen's Speech) and Nicola Sturgeon has already signalled that the non-removal of Trident would not be an obstacle to a deal. Today, Miliband has left the door open to such an arrangement and will not close it before 7 May. As well as potentially giving up the chance to form a government, Labour is also concerned that rejecting any arrangement with the SNP would threaten the legitimacy of Westminster's Scottish MPs. 

For this reason, the Tory attack remains the same. A spokesman said: "This changes nothing. Ed Miliband will not rule out a deal with the SNP because he knows it's impossible to become Prime Minister without being carried into Downing Street in Alex Salmond's pocket."

But it's worth noting that the Conservatives themselves haven't ruled out a loose deal with the SNP in the event of a hung parliament. 

Update: And here's SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon's response: "This was a lot of hype to rule out something no one was proposing. Mr Miliband's statement is absolutely fine from our point of view, because formal coalition with seats in the UK government has never been our preference anyway.

"But Ed Miliband does himself no good in trying to second guess the electorate in Scotland and pre-determine the election outcome - the people will have their say on 7 May, and the job of politicians is to take their cue from the electorate.

"Our priority is using the clout we can achieve with a strong team of SNP MPs to stand up for Scotland's interests, and advance progressive politics across the UK. We are taking nothing for granted, and will work hard for every vote and seat at the General Election to give Scotland the strongest possible voice.

"Mr Miliband is also foolish to allow himself to be pushed around by the Tory Party - which he clearly has been, given that he is making this speech in Leeds under Tory pressure, rather than at the Scottish Labour conference. The other arrangements which have not been ruled out - such as confidence and supply, and voting on an issue by issue basis - are the options we believe are best for Scotland anyway.

"Labour's claim that the next UK Government will be determined by who gets the most seats is simply untrue - it will be determined by who can command a majority in the House of Commons. If there are more anti-Tory MPs in the House of Commons than Tory MPs, we can lock David Cameron out of Downing Street. The the only circumstances in which the Tories could get back into government would be if Labour let them - the SNP never will.

"And if Ed Miliband stood aside and let the Tories back into government in preference to working with the SNP, that would be a hammer blow to Labour - both north and south of the border. It would be the final nail in Labour's political coffin in Scotland.

"The evidence is that Labour voters back a deal with the SNP in preference to another Tory government by a margin of six to one.

"The people of Scotland can vote for SNP MPs in May to get rid of the Tories and achieve a powerful position at Westminster - to win the powers promised to Scotland, reverse austerity cuts in favour of investing in growth and jobs, and stop the waste of tens of billions of pounds on a new generation of Trident nuclear weapons."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.