The British establishment is in a state of panic. Each passing day, each new opinion poll and each unsuccessful policy briefing has brought the unthinkable closer: a government of the unelectable propped up by the unspeakable. Short of some major shifts between now and the 7th of May, Miliband will be Prime Minister with the support of the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon. What's shaping up is not just a Tory defeat, but something much bigger: the end of the Tories as the dominant party of government, an unprecedented phase of constitutional crises in the UK. Things are about to get very messy.
Assuming the outcome described above, it will be 23 years since the Conservatives last won a majority in a general election. A majority in the 2020 election would be the first for 28 years. I'll go out on a limb and say a 2020 victory is not going to happen – the fragmenting of the vote, the loosening grip of the three big parties is a long term and growing trend. It's unlikely to reverse. We may not see another Conservative majority ever.
Things could have been different. In 2012 the Tories, and some Labour MPs, blocked moves to reform the House of Lords and move it to a predominantly elected system. Westminster first acknowledged the need to do so over a hundred years ago in the Parliament Act 1911. Unwilling to let go of their power to give their mates Peerages, and with outright contempt for democratic norms, the Tories killed the Bill. As a result the Lib Dems blocked Tory plans for reforming the constituency boundaries – vital in a system as warped as first-past-the-post. The remaining boundaries give Labour a big inbuilt advantage – they can get more seats even with fewer votes than the Conservatives. By refusing to allow even entirely orthodox, run of the mill democratic reforms – like an elected second chamber – and therefore causing a Lib Dem backlash, the Tories may have put the final nail in their own coffin.
In 2011, the Conservatives had ruled out a referendum on genuine voting reform – a system of proportional representation, as the Lib Dems and reformers wanted. Cameron allowed only a vote on AV – another majoritarian system that is only marginally better than FPTP. Seats and votes would still be wildly out of synch, tactical voting and safe seats would continue (Labour, it should be noted, were only too happy to assist the Tories in killing the reform for similarly self-interested reasons). Again, Cameron shut down a basic democratic request – that the seats a party gets are in proportion to its votes – in the interests of his party.
As the polls stand now, the Tories have 35 percent, UKIP 13 percent and the Lib Dems 9 percent, a combined share of the vote of 57 percent. In a proportional, democratic system, they would have around 57 percent of the seats – they'd have a majority, assuming Clegg could be persuaded to work with Farage. Given Clegg's history, it seems a fair shout that another sniff of power would happily make up for any personal queasiness, and he has made quite plain in interviews he would rather work with the Tories than Labour. Even were Clegg to stand firm, a straight Tory UKIP coalition is only a couple of percentage points away under a proportional vote.
Assuming either of the above, Cameron would have remained Prime Minister. What's interesting about the proposition is that in the AV referendum the Conservatives and the right-wing press, to the last, backed first-past-the-post. The press are staunch opponents of more democratic voting systems because the current mess gives them considerable leverage, and more representative government would likely be much tougher on corporate power – something their billionaire proprietors are naturally keen to avoid. Yet as things now stand, the old defence of first-past-the-post – that it provides "strong government" – has melted away. For the second time in five years the system will have delivered a hung parliament.
Early in the Coalition, Cameron changed the law to effectively lock himself in as Prime Minister for a full five years, fearing a breakdown in the Lib-Con coalition. Changing the rules in his Fixed Term Parliaments Act, he blocked an early election by ensuring governments have five year terms. To trigger an early election, a two-thirds majority in the Commons is now required, rather than a simple majority. A vote of no confidence could still be lost with a simple majority, triggering an early election, but this seems now the only plausible way to cut short a five year term. If Miliband gets in, the same rules will apply – he will be locked in too, and Conservatives will have to put up with him.
The Tories look set to be hoist by at least three of their own petards – failing to secure boundary reform, blocking a referendum on Proportional Representation and the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.
Understandably, the right-wing press are now apoplectic. They have spent years hammering Miliband – he is a joke, a geek, he can't even eat a bacon sandwich. It is not possible for the public to elect him. But it looks they will. That he will be propped up by the SNP turns the unsightly into the obscene. They're not going to accept it.
Adam Ramsay wrote some weeks ago that the press would attempt a "coup" in such a result, and demand Cameron remain as leader of the party with "the most seats". But that's not how things work in Britain – the Prime Minister is the person who can command a majority of MPs in the House of Commons, even if that means making a coalition with another party or forming minority government. What the press are now trying to do, and have been doing for weeks, is lay the ground for stopping Miliband forming a minority government. First, they and the Tories led repeated demands that Miliband rule out a formal coalition with the SNP – a party that will have around 50 seats in the House of Commons, democratically elected. Miliband caved and ruled it out.
Watch our political correspondent Gavin Haynes find out who will stand up for the Establishment:
The next stage is convincing the public that Sturgeon and the SNP are nationalist sociopaths who want to destroy us all – even a Labour minority propped up by the SNP (as opposed to a formal coalition) is, in Cameron's terminology, "despicable". On the 10th of April, the Mail even ran a poll asking whether the SNP should be able to partner only with the party with most seats – testing the water for whether the public could be convinced that the Tories had a constitutional right to govern and an SNP-Lab alliance was illegitimate. A ridiculous notion, but they did the poll all the same. That's how desperate things are getting. And things are now starting to spiral.
In the Mail on Saturday, you could see the cogs painfully turning. Headlines included "STURGEON HOLDS BRITAIN TO RANSOM" and "Scotland has lost its marbles". In its editorial, it said, "a terrifyingly plausible vision is looming" – a Lab-SNP government, a "hideously undemocratic 'coalition of chaos'". The next page, Robert Hardman writes of Sturgeon that despite securing "just 4 percent of the national vote, she could… be king maker". UKIP, he continues, will get three times more votes than the SNP, but ten times less seats – "a democratic deficit to make the blood boil". In Platell's column she writes that it would be "the greatest democratic injustice to befall our entire nation". Just to recap: both the Mail and the Conservatives worked very hard to retain the undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system that is now causing these big mismatches between votes won and seats won. It's just that this time they're getting butt-hurt because the system is working against them.
On Sunday, the "coup" stepped up a gear. In a fascinating piece in the Sunday Times, we learn that the Queen – who technically has the power to choose who forms the government – has had to make clear she will not get involved in propping up a government that does not have the support of the majority of MPs. It stresses that we don't know whether it's Miliband or Cameron who asked the question, but there is one revealing quote from a Palace source: "Cameron remains Prime Minister but he can't borrow the Queen for support".
There's good reason for believing the real story here is that it is the Conservatives who have approached the Palace about shoring up a potential Tory minority government that cannot command a majority.
People should be in no doubt how far the Tories, the City and the right-wing press will go to get their man in. Nick Clegg is already describing the SNP's participation in government as "illegitimate" – essentially saying a democratically elected party shouldn't be allowed in government because he doesn't like them. Should a Labour-SNP majority be the outcome of the election, we can expect to hear a lot more of that, as the Conservatives try and undermine the British electorate's decision – voiced through a crooked system that they tried so hard to save – so that they stay in power.
If Buckingham Palace can be convinced – through the creation of an atmosphere where a Labour-SNP coalition is considered unthinkable – to retain Cameron above a Labour leader that can command a majority in the House, that really would be a power grab that would raise eyebrows in a banana republic. It would make a total mockery of the British "constitution". The fact that the Palace have even had to brief against the idea – that it's even a possibility to the Conservatives that the Palace would overrule the electorate – is astonishing. Yet it seems likely that is exactly what the Tories have been sounding out.
Short of some major reversals in the polls, one way or another we are about to enter the realm of serious constitutional breakdown.
Update: An earlier version of this article stated that under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, a two thirds majority is needed for a vote of no confidence, where previously a simple majority was needed. In fact, a two thirds majority is needed to call an early election. This has been corrected.
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