We all know, thanks to the poll deadlock and the endless speculation about possible and impossible coalitions, that this election is likely to produce a complex outcome. But while the electoral maths are perplexing thanks to the emergence of UKIP and the Greens, the days and months after the election are likely to produce even more head-scratching.
A hung parliament is clearly on the cards, but things are so finely balanced that the lessons of 2010 are going to be almost useless. The Telegraph has produced an amusing illustration of the different ways the various parties could work together to achieve a parliamentary majority, but in practice it’s hard to make the numbers add up in a way that would work politically.
The SNP and UKIP would be mad to throw away their outsider positions by treating with their respective victims, Labour and the Conservatives. The Lib Dems may not have enough MPs to help anyone to a majority – and if they did, a new Dods poll reveals that less than half of sitting Conservative MPs would consider a deal with them. Among Labour MPs that rate is barely a third.
All of which explains why people have moved onto the idea of minority government. But in practice that would be extremely hard to sustain while making any worthwhile progress – at best there would be constant, costly trade-offs and at worst there would be deeply unpopular paralysis.
So the commentariat shifted again, to a brief period of minority government followed by a second 2015 General Election. It’s not a bad plan – stand on a platform of sorting out the economy, then go to the country when the others stand in the way of doing the job. Short of winning a majority, it would be my preference.
Except for one fat, squirming fly in the ointment: the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act.
AV was a bad idea, and it was deservedly rejected. But Fixed-Term Parliaments were introduced with barely a mutter, and are just as great a constitutional change.
As Lord Norton notes, a lot of people still haven’t quite registered how the Act works. Indeed, a lot of people seem to think it’s still just a question of the Government of the day asking the Queen for an election. But it isn’t. Here’s his concise summary of the process:
“A general election takes place every 5 years on the first Thursday in May. An early election is only possible if (a) the House of Commons passes (by a simple majority) the motion ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’ and, within 14 days, a new or reconstituted government has not achieved passage of the motion ‘That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’; or (b) the House, by unanimity or, on a division, by a two-thirds majority of all MPs (not simply two-thirds of those voting) passes the motion ‘That there shall be an early general election’.”
Either scenario makes things difficult. Either you have to engineer a vote of no confidence in your own government and then hand your opponents a two week opportunity to form a new government (tricky then risky) or you have to secure the agreement of a large chunk of your opponents to hold an election (tricky and unlikely, if you want an election at a good time for you).
The logic is quite clear. The Lib Dems wanted a system that would artificially boost their chances of being in government. They shouldn’t have been given what they wanted, but it happened and it’s now the law.
So if people are struggling to predict the outcome of the election, there’s no chance of predicting how the rest of the year will play out. Voters’ frustrations with the compromises and fudges of a hung parliament and coalition are clear – but with the polls standing as they are and a bad law hobbling attempts to break out of the pattern, they may find themselves presented with more of the same. If that happens, I suspect the disillusionment we see today will seem mild by comparison.