The only thing that matters come May 8th is learning how to count

Robert A Caro’s biography of Lyndon B Johnson is one of the finest political works of the modern era. But it has one essential lesson for any politician or would-be politician – learn how to count.

That’s a lesson that’s always rung true in British politics, but which will count especially so from May 8th onwards. If David Cameron can’t command a majority (323 votes) in the Commons to remain as Prime Minister, he’s gone, no matter what noise is made by the Tories.

And noise there no doubt will be – overnight these tweets from Sunday Times Political Editor Tim Shipman caught my attention:

This is all predicated on the assumption which many on the right are happy to make – that the Tories will be the largest party. Both Peter Kellner and John Curtice have made similar predictions today. Yet it’s still possible, with Labour competitive in a large number of target seats, and with the scale of Labour’s defeat still to be determined, that Labour will come out on top.

But let us consider a possibility where Cameron has won the most seats, but falls short of a Commons majority. Declaring victory in such a scenario would be nonsense, yet it would be unsurprising and entirely in keeping with the sense of entitlement that Cameron reeks of. Indeed, it has been what the past two weeks of the Tory campaign have been all about – trying to scare the electorate into backing the Tories, whilst preparing the ground for a widespread media-backed campaign of delegitimisation of Ed Miliband should he become Prime Minister.

And yet the only thing that makes you a legitimate Prime Minister in any meaningful sense is having a potential majority in the House if Commons. Without that you can’t pass a Queen’s Speech, or a budget – or pretty much any legislation. Without getting to that magic 323 you can’t become Prime Minister. Cameron appears set to claim that he has legitimacy based on plans for a potential four way coalition – Tory, Lib Dem, DUP and UKIP. Lets count the ways in which that might fall apart if (and it’s far from certain) they have the votes:

– The Tory Right might call on Cameron to refuse a second coalition, refusing to work with the Lib Dems

– The Lib Dems may shy away from another coalition after receiving an electoral kicking

– The Lib Dems may turn down an EU referendum, which for both the Tories and UKIP would be a deal-breaker

– Getting the Lib Dems to work with the extreme social conservatives of the DUP might be a struggle

And that’s before we get into whether a four party coalition or agreement could ever be expected to hold for any meaningful period of time….

Cameron will want to stay in Downing Street for as long as possible – even if he doesn’t have the votes or a prospect of a deal – in the hope that something turns up, and to allow the drumbeat of anti-Labour rhetoric to reach levels of hysteria that even this election campaign hasn’t managed to achieve. He wants his opponents to drag him kicking and screaming out of a Downing Street that – if he has no majority in the Commons – he’ll have no right to still inhabit. And unlike in 2010, he can be sure that newspapers who are practically part of his campaign team will not attack him as the squatter in No.10, as they did to Brown last time around.

The Tory aim is to have Miliband arrive in power hobbled, under attack and late. Labour may attempt to trigger a vote of no confidence in the government as soon as possible to force the issue, but the reality is that Cameron without a majority would simply begin fighting the next (perhaps imminent) election.

So from May 8th onwards – perhaps from 10.01 on May 7th onwards – the Tories are going to want to talk about legitimacy. As I’ve noted the only legitimacy that’s real and which counts comes from a Commons majority, but lets talk about legitimacy.

There were concerns raised about the legitimacy of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition in 2010, where millions had voted for the yellows in a bid to stop the Tories, only to find their votes propping up a Tory government. The Lib Dems lost those millions of voters five days after election day, and went on to vote for an economy and a series of policies that they had explicitly rejected. How legitimate was that? But after a few weeks the arguments faded away and the coalition was the new reality.

And incase anyone thinks I’m being tribal in my dismissal of the legitimacy argument, in 2005 Labour amassed a majority of 66 seats off the back of just 35.2% of the vote on a turnout of 61.4%, and yet few considered this to be illegitimate. Yet gaining support from just over a third of the two-thirds of people who could be bothered to vote is hardly a definition of popular support for a government, or the consent of the people.

So if Miliband becomes Prime Minister, and the Tories and their partners in the press begin to caterwaul about legitimacy, the Labour leader should take the bold – and right – decision to tackle this head on. Both rhetorically, by saying that Cameron has lost his right to govern by losing his majority, but also politically, by arguing that the majority of the votes in the Commons were for change, and that he will embody that change. And that a new voting system – to end the constitutional crises that the current voting system has begun to throw up – may be part of that change too.

Until then, the only thing that matters is learning how to count.

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