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Mike Smithson: What would the LibDems do in a Hung Parliament

Mike Smithson is Editor of  In advance of the publication of a ConservativeHome poll on party members' attitudes to co-operation with the Liberal Democrats he suggests that Britain may be heading for a hung parliament after the next General Election.  A Liberal Democrat himself he then considers how the parties might position themselves for possible coalition government.

Hungparliament_1 When I am pressed on how I think people will vote at the next General Election I say something like this:- CON 39%: LAB 33%: LD 22%: OTH 6%. This is roughly where we are with the latest polls but with the “others” total being compressed because of the likely polarisation that a close election would bring.

In terms of seats according to Anthony Wells’s excellent “Swing Calculator” on UK Polling Report these shares would produce this distribution: LAB 284: CON 283: LD 54: OTH 29.

The Tories would almost certainly be the majority party in England – an outcome that could have colossal consequences of itself. But the overall result would be a hung parliament with Labour having the most seats. Prime Minister Brown, if indeed it is he, would not have to go to the Palace to resign and could wait to take his chances in the Commons vote after the ensuing Queen’s speech.

The election result would, of course, be an abomination in terms of electoral fairness. Labour with less than one third of the vote, and having barely five-sixths of the votes of the Tories, would still have most seats.

My reading of Brown is that the situations where he is least happy are when he has to be a supplicant. He cannot bear putting himself in a situation where his overtures could get rejected.  That’s why he took so long before daring to run for a parliamentary seat, why becoming Labour leader without a serious battle is so important to him and why he will be a terrible fundraiser for his party.

For the Lib Dems this would be a challenging situation. Paddy Ashdown still bears the scars from his “deal” with Tony Blair after 1997. There are a lot of Liberals about who will recall that the party got next to nothing for propping the Callaghan government up in its dying days up to 1979.  Labour’s failure to take PR forward in the 97-01 parliament, even though it was in their manifesto, is still remembered. With Gordon not being a natural asker and a quarter of a century of history then its hard to see Ming buying a Labour offer if indeed there was one.

I also think that Labour would make it a whole lot worse for themselves by appearing as though they take the Lib Dems for granted. The Labour assumption that most makes the blood of Lib Dems boil is they have the monopoly of being anti-Tory and the LDs have just to follow on behind or else they will get the blame for letting in the dreaded Tories. Ill-thought out comments by a leading Labour front-bencher at the wrong time could scupper everything.

For an offer by the Tories or Labour requires a language and rhetoric by the asking party that is highly sensitive and I could see Cameron doing a much better job in that area. But could the Tories offer a deal that is acceptable? The most powerful argument that I think would resonate would be the election result itself. Some form of arrangement that saw the Lib Dems voting with the Tories on the Queen’s Speech would be putting right what the electoral system had got so badly wrong in the General Election. The result would have been a massive injustice – the Lib Dems would merely be correcting that.

That would be quite tough for the Lib Dems to buy especially as the social authoritarian strain of Conservatism combined with the approach on immigration that Michael Howard sought to articulate still make the Tories appear to be the “nasty” party.  It is also hard to see how Cameron could move much more to create a proposition that was acceptable to the Lib Dems without causing splits on the right.

My guess is that Prime Minister Brown who would announce that Labour would carry on as a minority government. He would effectively be daring the other parties to combine and vote his minority administration down in the Queen’s Speech debate that would follow. This gamble would prove costly. Without any formal agreement between the Lib Dems and the Tories Brown’s Labour would be voted down. Cameron would then seek to form a minority Government which would, in its first programme, offer enough to keep the Lib Dems on board without there being a formal deal.

Cameron would probably quite like such an outcome – having to win support of the Lib Dems and others on every issue. It would keep the “fruitcakes” in his party under control and he could stay in power long enough to choose an election day when the Tories could win.

Such a government might not be good for Simon Heffer’s blood pressure but it would make ConservativeHome even more of a “must read”.


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