It looks like none of the parties will win outright. This is uncharted territory!
Not true. The outcome is no excuse for politicians and civil servants to claim that the UK is “unaccustomed” to hung parliaments. Of the 20 Westminster governments formed in the 20th century, five were coalitions and five were minority governments. And, of course, the parties muddled through a hung parliament in 2010.
If no one achieves a majority, who wins?
The party whose leader can command the “confidence” of the House of Commons – which basically means securing enough support from the smaller parties to form a viable government. It’s a common misconception that the leader of the party with the most seats automatically becomes prime minister.
But won’t David Cameron get first dibs at making a deal, as the incumbent?
There is no such convention. The Prime Minister will remain in Downing Street until it becomes clear who can lead the next administration, but making deals and speaking to the smaller parties will be a free-for-all. And neither is it the case that the party to win the most seats has the first shot at forming a government, or that the smaller parties are obliged to speak to that party before any others.
So if Labour or the Tories think they can form a workable government, what will it look like?
We could see another formal coalition, like the one we have now – though there is less appetite for that this time, and the Lib Dems are unlikely to win enough seats to rule alongside either the Tories or Labour with a majority. A confidence-and-supply arrangement (where a smaller party backs government bills on a case-by-case basis) is another possible form of partnership. A minority government ruling alone is looking increasingly likely, though it is generally seen as undesirable. We could even see a minority coalition, as New Zealand did between 1999 and 2008. All of these are dependent on the electoral arithmetic and each of the parties’ “red lines” for negotiating a deal.
Who’s running the country during these deals?
The “caretaker convention” allows government ministers to remain in place, though little official business can be done. Cameron would stay in office, signing off initiatives and stopping ongoing agreements from lapsing, but there would be no new policies, contracts or public announcements. The civil service would remain in the more exotically named “purdah”, operating under specific professional restrictions on conducting government business.
How will the new government test itself to see if it works?
It is for the parties themselves to determine who among them is best placed to govern. Once they settle on which party is most likely to be able to govern, its leader goes to the Queen to be appointed prime minister. But the first real test is the Queen’s Speech. This is when the new government puts its legislative programme to a vote in the Commons. It is currently scheduled for 27 May.
What if they haven’t decided by then?
If there is still deadlock by 27 May then the Queen will want to stay out of it, and the Leader of the House of Lords (Baroness Stowell) will make the speech instead. One of the parties will have to dare to give things a go. If its Queen’s Speech fell, it would almost certainly face an immediate no-confidence vote.
And if it lost the no-confidence vote?
Then the leader would be compelled to resign as prime minister and advise the Queen to invite the opposition to attempt to form a government. If an alternative administration isn’t formed within 14 days, there would have to be a second general election.
How likely is a second election?
If the electoral arithmetic is irredeemably hung, we could end up with a second election this year. But it is unlikely, thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Support from at least two-thirds of the House of Commons would be needed for a motion calling for an early election. Or a majority would be required to pass a vote of no-confidence. It would be very difficult for a minority government to engineer either scenario, or to repeal the Act.
Does the Queen step in at any point to help to decide who governs?
No, not at all. The Queen’s private secretary will be in contact with Downing Street and will keep her updated, but she will be in Windsor and unreachable by politicians.