The 2010 general election was seen as one of the most exciting in living memory, with polls predicting a hung parliament months in advance creating a frenzy of political analysis that discussed the possible alternatives we would witness as traditional two-party politics became obsolete.
Thursday evening promises to be an even messier affair with the imminent annihilation of Labour in Scotland, meaning the emergence of a fourth large party at Westminster in the form of the SNP. Commentators are predicting and politicians are scaremongering about all different kinds of potential governments which could be formed after polls show another failure by the traditional duopoly to form a majority.
In reality however there are only two or three realistic outcomes after May 7.
Conservative minority – Likely
Polls are currently projecting that David Cameron will return to Westminster as the head of the single largest party though likely with even fewer seats than the last time. His chances of forming a majority are non-existent. The breakdown of seats will simply not allow it. Even if the Lib Dems agree to go into coalition with him again, their own likely showing of somewhere in the low 20s would result in a coalition that falls short of the required 326 seats. Could he potentially convince the DUP and UKIP to join a government? Not in any deal that could convince the Lib Dems to stay and even with those two parties added, a four-party coalition could still fall short of a majority by one or two seats. A massively fractured coalition that does not even command a majority is not likely to happen. It was for this same reasons the Lib Dems decided against a coalition with Labour in 2010.
This leaves Cameron with only one chance at remaining Prime Minister, sitting at the head of a minority Conservative government that stumbles its way to an October election.
Labour-SNP and/or Lib Dem coalition – Extremely unlikely
This appears to be the Conservative party’s key campaign message; Vote Labour and get SNP. The SNP have only helped fuel this by urging their own electorate to vote SNP in order to force Labour to the left and abandon austerity. They all know this is in reality untrue. The Labour party will not enter coalition with the SNP, it simply cannot work. The core policy at the heart of the three major national parties is the acceptance that the budget must be balanced by cutting spending. The core policy of the SNP is the exact opposite, they will not spend a moment entertaining any thought of joining a coalition that refuses to abandon austerity. Anything otherwise will be political suicide for the SNP who have nothing to gain from joining a coalition in Westminster and everything to lose having secured their position as the dominant force in Scottish politics for generations to come. In fact, to publicly pressure the Labour party about abandoning austerity and ensuring the public knows this is THE red line they will not cross will consolidate the massive gains they are set to make in Scotland. And when they do pull out of negotiations with Miliband, if any do take place, then blaming him for the policies of whatever government is formed will only cement their position in Scotland,
To make matters worse, it is again a possibility that a Labour-SNP coalition will not return a majority in the Commons. Adding the Lib Dems into the mix only makes the coalition more fractured and less likely to work given the red lines each party will draw even if it would almost certainly produce a majority.
Miliband will not be leading a formal coalition with the Lib Dems or the SNP.
Labour minority – Likely
This outcome is slightly more likely than Cameron leading a minority since he may be able to patch together support from both the SNP and the Lib Dems to at least form a minority government and then stumble to an October election in the same way Cameron would. To make this more interesting however is the possibility that Miliband could potentially form a minority government with fewer seats than Cameron and having technically ‘lost’ the election in the eyes of many voters. There is nothing wrong with this outcome nor does it present a constitutional problem as Cameron would have you believe. But it is emotional rhetoric (or cynical propaganda) that manufactures public opinion one way or the other and not necessarily reason and logic and so pro-Cameron tabloids may well paint Miliband as a usurper and proclaim Cameron the rightful Prime Minster.
Under these circumstances it would be extremely difficult to imagine a Miliband minority going beyond October when the combination of a weak parliamentary position and relentless media pressure forces him to call a second election.
Conservative-Labour coalition – The Dark Horse
There have been whispers and murmurs of this unspeakable outcome which has been suggested but not elaborated on. Party members on either side do not dare mention it, but whether after May or by the end of the year, the circumstances could force a result that makes perfect sense yet none at the same time. It is the best option for both parties but at the same time the worst. It is the biggest decision politicians will make that could lead to the complete reshaping of this country’s political landscape.
The case against is a reasonable one, though it has nothing to do with policy or the national interest. The modern Labour and Conservative party no longer stand for anything. Neither party has remained true to their respective historical ideology and both have become primarily centrist parties that sell the public on different shades of grey and their apparent hatred of the opposition. What sustains these two parties is that they are not the ‘other’. Not in a political sense. Their policies look and sound the same, their spokesmen look and sound the same, but the parties have different names and different colours and still claim to be opposed to each other. While they continue to pretend that they are not effectively the same, they can still stumble on as outdated political parties and carry on as usual.
But ignoring the names, there is a strong case for such a government. This government would command a massive majority with a total figure of around 550 seats which would represent immense strength and stability. Even better, negotiations between the two party leaders would not be particularly difficult. With the exception of proposing a referendum on the European Union there would be no major stumbling blocks, their policies have minor cosmetic differences but compromise would be easy. The reds can get the ‘bedroom tax’ scrapped and claim a victory and the blues can lead the government and wear the pretty crown.
Under normal circumstances this option would not be entertained by a serious individual but this is the only stable government that can be formed with the results we are expecting on Friday morning. It may not happen immediately, and it is quite likely that either party will attempt to form a minority government first before they commit hara kiri, but eventually the conversation will begin as follows: ‘At a time where our economic recovery is still fragile, we cannot have traditional political parties bickering while the nation suffers’
‘The public has made it clear that neither party has a mandate or right to lead a government and should represent the views of the entire country’.
And if they go into coalition together, the case will be put forward passionately and with real earnest. The only reason, we will be told, that they have gone into government together is because of their mutual desire to ensure that the country is not governed fractiously over the coming years and that they have nothing but the public interest in mind. The backbenches and foot soldiers will be furious but the public will buy it.
This next government is going to be a mess, and that is unavoidable. This is the nature of politics in countries where parliaments are actually representative and our electoral system can no longer prevent this. That is why we are now facing a scenario where what was once unthinkable could become a national debate over the coming weeks and months. Whether they do it immediately, wait till October or do not form a coalition together at any point, the debate will take place, and the outcome is a realistic possibility.
Cameron and Miliband talk about the possibility of an SNP coalition because they know it will not happen. They avoid mentioning coalition with each other because they fear it might have to happen.