With the UK General Election in Two Days, a Smooth Government Formation Appears Unlikely

In the United Kingdom, the general election that will decide all 650 seats in Parliament and the next British government is drawing to a close. The elections are less than one week away, and the parties’ campaigns are in their final swing. Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservatives continue their message that it was Conservative austerity and economic policies that got the United Kingdom out of the recession. They are proposing continued tax cuts for people making minimum wage, and 8 billion pounds in increased funding for the National Health Service by 2020. Prime Minister Cameron has also promised a referendum on British membership in the European Union during his second term in an attempt to recover the voters who have shifted to the euroskeptic UK Independence Party over the past five years. The Labour Party led by Ed Miliband, meanwhile, has promised 2.5 billion pounds in increased funding for the NHS, but has also stated it will be offset by a “mansion tax” on houses valued at over 2 million pounds. Labour has also proposed raising the minimum wage to 8 pounds per hour as well as continued support for the planned high speed rail extension from London to Birmingham and the West Midlands.

However, it appears increasingly likely that neither the Conservatives or Labour will come close to a majority in the polls on May 7. Both of the two largest parties are hovering around 34 percent in the polls. Normally, a situation like this would mean that either party could get a decent majority or that the Liberal Democrats would become the deciding factor in the case of a hung parliament. Both of these situations were the case in the last two British general elections. In 2005, Labour received 35.2% of the vote, the Conservatives received 32.4%, and the Liberal Democrats received 22%. As a result, Tony Blair retained a slight Labour majority government with 355 seats in Parliament. In 2010, there was a heavy swing to the Conservatives, who won a plurality of 36.1%. Labour received 29% and the Liberal Democrats saw a slight increase from 2005 with 23% of the vote. Those results, however, led to a hung parliament when the seats were calculated. The Conservatives negotiated a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and David Cameron became Prime Minister. In exchange for the coalition deal, the Liberal Democrats received several concessions. The main promises included a nationwide referendum to implement alternative voting and replace the first past the post system for electing Members of Parliament, and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was appointed Deputy Prime Minister.

Since the 2010 election, British politics has become much more muddled and the current projections going into the 2015 election are almost certainly going to produce another hung parliament. However, this time around, the possible coalitions and deals might not be so cut and dry. Based on current polls, the Labour and Conservative parties will each gather somewhere around 270 to 285 seats in Parliament. The Scottish National Party, despite running only in Scotland, having polled very well in the region. With 40 to 50 percent of the popular vote, the SNP could reasonably take over 50 of Scotland’s 59 seats in Westminster. While the SNP has soared in the polls, the Liberal Democrats have collapsed. From their height in the 2010 elections of 23% of the vote and 57 seats, the entrance into a coalition government has caused the status among Britons of the Liberal Democrats as a protest vote to vanish and the polls show their vote share likely to plummet to under 10 percent this election. However, the ground game that the Liberal Democrats have built up in crucial seats make it so they will likely retain at least 20 seats and potentially up to 35. The smaller British parties such as UKIP, the Greens, and Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru round out the rest of the seats in Great Britain, with each looking at 3 or 4 seats at most.

With those projections, it is very likely a coalition or some sort of deal will have to happen in order to have a government form after the May 7 elections. There are three primary possibilities that could come out of this situation. As David Cameron is the incumbent Prime Minister, in the event of a hung parliament he would carry on as caretaker PM and have the first crack at forming a new government once the new parliament begins its term. However, the Conservative chances of forming a coalition again appear grim. They will most likely receive at most 285 seats, which means they would need another 41 seats to gain a majority of the 650 seats in Westminster required to form a government. While the SNP would allow the Conservatives to bridge that gap, the actions of the party during the Scottish independence referendum last year as well as the SNP opposition to extending the Trident missile system in Scotland have led to the SNP ruling out any agreement with the Conservatives. As such, for Cameron to form a government, he would have to look to the smaller parties. The Liberal Democrats, assuming they hold 25-30 seats, would be a start toward reaching that majority. From there, the other likely partners would include UKIP with the promise of a referendum on the EU, and the Democratic Unionist Party with their 8 or 9 Northern Irish seats. Thus, the most likely deal the Conservatives could reach for a majority would result in a Conservative-Lib Dem-UKIP-DUP government. On the face of it this seems very unstable, and it’s unlikely that this coalition would last very long if it happened.

If the Conservatives cannot form a workable coalition or form a government, then Ed Miliband and Labour will be able to try. The Scottish National Party would be more amenable to working with Labour, so it is likely that, if the SNP had enough seats to be the sole kingmaker party, that a Labour-SNP deal would occur. However, this may not be a formal coalition government, especially if the Liberal Democrats or smaller parties are needed to gain a majority. A supply and confidence deal, in which the parties support Labour on confidence votes but might not support them on policy decisions, or a pure issue-by-issue vote with a minority Labour (or it it comes to that, Conservative) government could happen as well, but these cases could lead to early elections.

So after the election, with a hung parliament and no clear coalition likely, what are the major events if a government formation drags out into several weeks? The election itself is on May 7, so after that the attempts to form a workable government will begin. The first deadline after the election would be May 18, when the next Parliament begins its session. If Prime Minister Cameron has not reached an arrangement for a government formation and it looks like Miliband has, then Cameron must resign as Prime Minister. However, if neither party is close to reaching an agreement, then Cameron would stay on as Prime Minister while the talks continue. The next important date in that case would be May 27, the Queen’s Speech, where the new government presents its policy platform and budget to be voted upon. If an agreement cannot be reached even then, the Conservatives, as incumbent, would either stay on as a minority government unable to implement much of its platform, or Cameron would resign as PM and hand the reins to Ed Miliband. However, here we begin to enter unprecedented territory in terms of government formation.

Historically, if a budget could not be passed or the Queen’s Speech vote failed, it would automatically be considered a vote of no confidence and a new general election would be called. This is what happened in February 1974, when Edward Heath’s Conservatives lost their majority and Harold Wilson of Labour formed a minority government with a new election scheduled for that October. However, with the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the ability to call a new general election has been restricted and a failed Queen’s Speech vote is not considered a vote of no confidence. To have a new election, a vote of no confidence must be specifically called and pass with a majority, and no confidence vote for another government is formed passes within 14 days. With these circumstances, if a minority government happens after the upcoming elections, it is difficult to say whether a new election will be held or whether a government will have to muddle through the next five years with little support in Parliament on a vote-by-vote basis.

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