Why deadlock means danger

A hung parliament with a large Lib Dem contingent is far better news for the Tories than for Labour.

Good morning. Here is the news for 24 May. Britain has a new Prime Minister. Talks between Labour and the Liberal Democrats finally collapsed last night, and the Queen invited David Cameron to form a government. Even though Labour won 67 more seats than the Conservatives on 6 May, Gordon Brown conceded that his Queen's Speech would be defeated next week, and tendered his resignation. Mr Cameron immediately received a boost from the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg announced that his MPs would abstain on all important votes in the House of Commons until at least the summer recess, in order to ensure some stability at Westminster after more than a fortnight of uncertainty. In overnight trading on the foreign exchange markets, the pound recovered five cents to $1.20.

Wake up. It may never happen, although something like it has happened before. Stanley Baldwin, then Conservative prime minister, called an election in December 1923 to secure backing for his controversial plans for tariff ­reform. The Tories lost their majority but emerged as the largest party, with 258 MPs. Labour came second with 191 MPs, while the Liberals won 158. Baldwin remained prime minister for seven weeks; but when he lost a vote of confidence in the new parliament, he resigned, and Ramsay MacDonald formed the first Labour government, with the tacit support of the Liberals.

Out of the past

Could history repeat itself? Could Prime Minister Brown remain the leader of easily the largest party on 6 May, but be forced to resign - not because David Cameron and Nick Clegg form a Lib-Con coalition, but because they decide to vote down his Queen's Speech?

It is generally assumed that Clegg would be unable to join forces with Cameron. Even if he were tempted with the prospect of a seat in the cabinet, his party would not let him sign up to a formal coalition. But this does not mean that Labour merely has to remain the largest party in the new House of Commons to stay in office. The point about the 1923-24 precedent is that the largest party lost power even though the two other parties did not form a coalition.

Until the Lib Dem surge that followed the first television debate between the main party leaders on 15 April, the 1924 precedent seemed irrelevant. The Lib Dems looked as if they would be doing well to hold on to the 62 seats they won five years ago - a far cry from the 158 seats the Liberals secured in December 1923. Now that precedent looks far more germane.

It is perfectly possible that the Lib Dem surge will damage the Tories' chances of winning an outright victory - and also destroy Gordon Brown's lingering hopes of remaining Prime Minister. Why? Because the rules concerning the power of dissolution favour an opposition on the rise rather than a government in decline.

By "rules", I don't mean anything written down. Britain's unwritten constitution means that we have to rely on precedent. But two principles are well established. The first is that the Queen is kept out of controversy; therefore, before the prime minister of the day asks the monarch for a dissolution, some kind of consensus is needed in Whitehall and Westminster that a new election can reasonably be held. The second principle is that a new PM emerging from the opposition can normally obtain a dissolution on request - but a party that loses an election cannot ask for a second election if the result of the first is not to its liking.

The most recent precedent for this was set in March 1974. The election on 28 February had given Britain 301 Labour MPs, 297 Conservatives, 14 Liberals and 23 MPs from other parties. Edward Heath resigned as prime minister when he failed to strike a coalition deal with the Liberals. Labour's Harold Wilson returned as PM, and received an assurance from Buckingham Palace that, were he to be defeated on his Queen's Speech, he could be granted an immediate dissolution and a second election just weeks after the first. This prospect terrified the Tories and Liberals. Fearing that voters would crucify them for their irresponsibility, they abstained and Wilson enjoyed one of the largest majorities ever for any Queen's Speech.

Waiting game

A hung parliament at this year's election, therefore, will place Cameron in a stronger position than Brown. If Brown tries to carry on and fails, the Queen will ask Cameron to form a government. If Brown resigns, but PM Cameron can't muster a majority for his programme, a new election will be held; the public are likely to crucify Labour and the Lib Dems for precipitating the new election and prolonging uncertainty, and so grant Cameron a big majority.

Which is why there won't be an immediate second election: Labour and Lib Dem strategists are not lemmings. The upshot is that for Brown (or another Labour leader) to be PM in a month's time, he must be able to win key votes in the Commons. If Labour falls well short of an overall majority, he will need at least an understanding, and possibly a coalition, with the Lib Dems. Cameron needs no such deal. He needs merely to wait for Labour's leader to throw in the towel. This is true even if the Tories have fewer seats than Labour.

In short, a hung parliament with a large Lib Dem contingent is far better news for the Tories than for Labour - unless Brown (or Alan Johnson or one of the Milibands) is willing and able to make a deal with Clegg; and if Clegg can persuade his often stroppy party to back the deal. How our physically and emotionally exhausted political leaders react to an indecisive verdict could decide whether the next decade is dominated by a new progressive alliance or a resurgent Tory party.

Peter Kellner is president of YouGov

Peter Kellner was President of YouGov from 2007 to 2015. Prior to that, he worked as a journalist for Newsnight, the New Statesman, and others.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger