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The Party must be asked to endorse any post-election agreement with Clegg (or anyone else)

The election takes place a week today.  The new Parliament meets on May 18. A fresh Chairman of the 1922 Committee won't be elected until roughly a fortnight later.

This raises a question: if there's a hung Parliament, and David Cameron reaches agreement with Nick Clegg, how will the Conservative Party as a whole reach a view on it?  After all, a week or so will pass after election day until a Parliamentary Party is in place.  And for two weeks or so after it's in place there'll be no Chairman of the '22.

James Forsyth explores this question in this week's Spectator.  Tim flagged the piece up yesterday here.  James' article isn't online yet, and it's well worth buying this week's edition to read it in full.  The main points that he makes are as follows:

  • Cameron's colleagues, "often the last to know what he is thinking", are worried that in such circumstances he might reach a deal with Clegg that concedes a referendum on PR.
  • During the last Parliament, the 1922 Committee discussed procedures to junk the three week delay in the event of a hung Parliament - and elect a new Chairman as quickly as possible.
  • If Parliament is indeed hung, Cameron's minded to "go it alone" - making no concessions on PR - and dare the Liberals to vote down his budget.
  • Some argue that Cameron would call an emergency meeting of newly-elected candidates before Parliament resumes.

For what it's worth, my view is as follows.

If there's a hung Parliament, Clegg, his Shadow Cabinet, and the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party are governed by Party rules leaving them have limited room for manoeuvre.  Anthony Wells of UK Polling Report has a detailed piece on the matter here (scroll down a bit to find it).

Cameron, his Shadow Cabinet and the Conservative Parliamentary Party are, by contrast, unconstrained. There's no rule-book telling either him or any of them what they must do in such circumstances.

The 1922 Committee would be wise to elect a new Chairman as soon as possible.  There's no reason why senior backbenchers shouldn't meet during the week beginning May 10 to make the necessary arrangements. Those officers and executive members of the '22 Committee who were in place when the last Parliament was dissolved and have been elected to the new one would probably be viewed by their colleagues as having sufficient authority to do this.

If Clegg approaches Cameron, his Shadow Cabinet, Parliamentary Party-to-be and the Party as a whole should let him negotiate without attempting to lay down conditions.  Any other course of action would be impractical - after all, how on earth would agreement be reached on who should lay down such conditions, and what such they should be?  It would also be undesirable.  Cameron shouldn't be obliged to pause pre-negotiation to consult - a pause that could conceivably last for weeks - because of the risk that turmoil in the markets could send the pound diving, interest rates soaring and threaten our credit rating.

Because of the lack of constraint on him, Cameron can - in theory - reach pretty much any agreement he likes with Clegg.  But theory isn't practice.  And, in practice, Cameron needs to carry the consent of his Shadow Cabinet, the Parliamentary Party and the Party as a whole.  As James' article indicates, Cameron knows this perfectly well.

So in the event of a hung Parliament, Cameron shouldn't consult his Party before negotiation, but seek its endorsement after any agreement.

Were he to reach a very early agreement with Clegg after May 8, he should first seek endorsement from the Shadow Cabinet, and then from an emergency meeting of the Parliamentary Party-to-be.  It should ideally be put to the Party as a whole - after all, Built to Last was - but if the Shadow Cabinet and Parliamentary Party are signed up it may not be sensible to have an expensive ballot during an economic crisis weeks after an agreement's been reached (a ballot, furthermore, with no authority to overturn anything).

If there isn't a very early agreement, but one's reached later in the week beginning May 10, it may be possible to wait until after the new Parliament meets and a new '22 Chairman is elected.

The same timetable and practice should apply were Cameron to seek to reach agreement with a Party other than the Liberal Democrats.

Obviously, I'm not conceding that the new Parliament will be hung.  As Tim wrote yesterday, "hopefully we'll win a majority and there'll be no need for any of this". But the polls suggest that a hung Parliament may happen, there's lots of speculation about it, and our readers deserve the chance to debate the issues - goodness knows, everyone else is.

A footnote: it's very important to consult backbenchers in any dealings with the Liberals.  After all, remember what happened in 1922...

Paul Goodman


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