Hanging on until the Queen’s Speech

Queen's SpeechBy Brian Barder / @BrianLB

Three days ago I spelled out in detail the implications as I see them of the constitution and the new rules promulgated by the cabinet secretary for the rights and duties of an incumbent Prime Minister after an election has resulted in a hung parliament. The clear message of this analysis was that if there’s a hung parliament after May 6th, whatever the result in terms of votes or seats, Gordon Brown would have not only the right but also the duty not to resign before he had faced the new parliament and submitted a programme for government in the Queen’s Speech, being careful to ensure that his programme was one which the Lib Dems would find it virtually impossible to vote against. In other words, the decision that the Lib Dems will need to take is not (as the media pundits all seem to assume) “whether to support Labour or the Conservatives as the new government” but rather whether to defeat or support a Labour government’s Queen’s Speech that promises a referendum on electoral reform, tax reform to take the poorest out of tax, restructuring of the banks, a new approach to civil liberties, re-examination in the defence review of the decision to replace Trident, provision to bring illegal immigrants who have been here for 10 years into the legal economy and the tax system, and a cornucopia of other Lib Dem shibboleths.

I also summarised this argument in a letter to the Guardian which was published yesterday (April 26th) in only slightly truncated form (text here). For the record, here’s the text of my letter as submitted on Saturday to the Guardian:

“Some opinion polls suggest that on 6 May Labour may win fewer votes than the Conservatives (and possibly even than the LibDems) but still emerge as the party with the most seats in the House of Commons. If that happens there’ll be demands from the right-wing press and the Tories for Gordon Brown to resign immediately, because he will have ‘lost the election’ in terms of votes.

However the new rules introduced by the Cabinet Secretary require the incumbent prime minister in a hung parliament to remain in office until there’s a broad consensus on a successor who will demonstrably command the confidence of a majority of MPs in his government and its programme; and there are sound precedents for the party with the most seats to form a government, or to stay in office, even if it has won fewer votes than its opponent (elections in 1951 and twice in 1974). As the incumbent prime minister Brown will have the right to continue in office and to meet parliament with a policy programme for the House to support or reject (Nick Clegg: the power balancer, 19 April). As long as the LibDems have not declared whether they will vote to live with a minority Labour government or a minority Conservative one, it will not be certain that David Cameron would have a better prospect of securing majority support for his programme than Gordon Brown.

Even if Labour wins marginally fewer seats than the Tories, as well as fewer votes, Gordon Brown should exercise his right and duty to remain in office as required by the Cabinet Secretary’s code, offer a moderate policy programme including a referendum on electoral ‘reform’ and other items from the LibDems’ list of priorities, and challenge the LibDems to vote against it in the debate on the Queen’s Speech – in the knowledge that by rejecting it they will be installing a Cameron government in No. 10 which will be implacably opposed to any change in the electoral system. The LibDems would then be in no position to use their balance-of-power votes to defeat – or even threaten to defeat – the new Conservative government which they had voted into office, having just chosen to eject a Labour one. A premature resignation by Mr Brown would needlessly throw away all these possibilities.”

I’m much heartened to see that a committed Conservative blogger has devoted a whole post to my earlier piece, describing it as “A truly excellent, but entirely unnerving, article”, and sadly concluding that:

“Simply put, if my understanding of the piece is correct, should a hung parliament of one form or another be the outcome in which Nick Clegg held the balance of power, there would be no legal or even moral obligation for Brown to resign, so Clegg would be forced to bring down the Labour government by refusing to endorse the Queen’s Speech. This would trigger another general election which, you have to think, would hardly be in the Liberal Democrat’s best interest. The chances are, therefore, that Clegg would do a deal with Brown and Brown would continue as Prime Minister for the time being, despite having a smaller share of the vote than the Conservative Party.”

This however isn’t entirely correct: in my scenario, if the Lib Dems vote to defeat a Labour Queen’s speech despite its programme including electoral reform and most of the other things on the Lib Dem wish-list, the consequence would be a Conservative government which would neither offer nor need to offer the Lib Dems anything at all. Only if they were foolish enough to vote that government down as well would there be another election immediately – in which the Lib Dems, having behaved so irrationally and irresponsibly in defeating both a Labour and a Conservative government in quick succession, could expect to be wiped out, with the Tories winning an overall majority in the second poll. Surely even the Lib Dems would not commit electoral suicide in such a spectacular way?

All this, of course, is posited on there being a hung parliament after May 6th. I remain unconvinced that this will happen. But if it does, let’s hope that the Prime Minister will stick to his guns right up to the vote on his government’s Queen’s Speech. If he does, he will maximise the chances, against all the odds, of emerging with a de facto alliance of convenience with the Lib Dems that will democratically reflect the overall majority in the election, both in votes and in seats, for the centre-left. For a clear centre-left victory is the one thing it’s perfectly safe to forecast.

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