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More 'gridlocked' than hung parliament

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 09 May 2010

The failure of the Liberal Democrats to gain seats overall has introduced a strange quirk to the negotiations, according to independent political analyst, Greg Callus. Any resulting deal may result in a gridlocked parliament.

Leaders (Getty)

So the results are in, and the UK has its first hung parliament produced by a general election since 1974. Exciting times for political commentators and currency speculators, but now the negotiations move to (smoke-free) back rooms at Smith Square, as the parties haggle over who should form the next government.

The failure of the Lib Dems to gain seats overall has introduced a strange quirk to the negotiations. It had been assumed that any two-party combination of the major three parties would have sufficient seats to command an overall majority.

But with Labour on 258 and the Lib Dems only on 57, a Lib-Lab coalition would still require support from smaller parties from the Celtic nations in order to constitute more than half of the House of Commons. This makes it somewhat more difficult for Gordon Brown to stay in office, and tilts the advantage towards David Cameron.

Hung parliament - who are the dealmakers?

So what are the numbers? Of 650 MPs elected (though Thirsk & Malton will not vote until 27th May, due to the death of the UKIP candidate John Boakes), the five from Sinn Fein will not take their seats. Add to this that the speaker and three deputy speakers who do not vote unless they are presiding over a tie, and there are only 641 voting MPs. Thus a majority can be secured with 321 MPs.

David Cameron has 305, and will almost certainly win Thirsk & Malton on 2005 notional numbers, making 306. He requires at least 15 MPs from other parties – without reaching agreement with Nick Clegg, he could ask for the support of the DUP (eight MPs), the SNP-Plaid bloc (nine MPs), or try an unlikely appeal to the three "others": Green Party leader Caroline Lucas, the Alliance Party's Naomi Long, or former Ulster Unionist (now Independent) Sylvia Hermon who quit the UUP over the deal with the Conservatives.

Political editor Gary Gibbon writes:
The Tories have been calling senior "opinion formers" and backbenchers to check they’re ok with developments so far in negotiations.

There’s a meeting of the Tory MPs now rushed into the diary for 6pm Monday.

I don’t sense the Tories’ talked of deadline of Monday is sure to be reached but the mutterings from Tories unhappy with all this are not out of control yet.

Read more from Gary Gibbon's blog

The Labour Party, at 258 MPs, would require other parties even if they struck a deal with the Liberal Democrats' 57 MPs. The total Lib-Lab of 315 could probably rely on their Northern Irish counterparts (the one MP from the Alliance and the three from the SDLP) making 319, but that would still leave them a couple of seats short.

The DUP are not a likely possibility, and some Lib Dems I have spoken to are not enthusiastic about inviting the Green Party into government (the Greens are considered spoilers by many Lib Dems, a view that will be strengthened by the shocking loss of Dr Evan Harris in Oxford West & Abingdon, defeated by much less than the number of Green voters in that seat).

For Labour and the Lib Dems to enter formal coalition would likely necessitate a further deal with the SNP-Plaid bloc with a potential that has some precedent in the Senedd government in Cardiff.

So (ignoring for a moment the apparently unthinkable Lab-Con grand coalition) other than a pact between Clegg and Cameron, all options will require at least three parties to form a government. This is not just a hung parliament, it is a gridlocked parliament, requiring a greater degree of horse-trading of jobs and policies than previously thought, and involving more parties than planned.

In spite of Gordon Brown's right to have first stab at forming a government, negotiations between the Lib Dems and Conservatives are already under way. Coming so close (indeed, but for UKIP, Cameron would have an overall majority), has given the Tory leader some mandate to enter into talks with Clegg.

The strategy seems to be offer some concessions on policy, but that a referendum on electoral reform is off the table. The Tories are daring the Lib Dems to refuse policy changes and senior Cabinet jobs, though the 1500-or-so protesters yesterday calling for Lib Dems to insist on electoral reform as the price of a deal are a mark of how serious the implications could be for Clegg if he does not insist on at least a referendum on AV+ (alternative vote plus), let alone the preferred STV model the Lib Dems advocate.

The Tories are unlikely ever to permit the loss of first past the post (FPTP), and some sections of the Conservative press are adamant that Cameron should go it alone with a minority government. Fraser Nelson of the Spectator has been vocal in arguing against formal coalition, and Paul Waugh of the Evening Standard has written insightfully on how the Conservatives do not need a working majority in the Commons to effect most of their policies (just need "supply and confidence" from the Lib Dems, rather than full coalition).

To that end, it is difficult to see how the Lib Dems can enter a formal deal with the Tories – to do so will not get them electoral reform, and will anger the party at large.

"Common ground" and conflict between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems

Labour, by contrast, seem positively eager to offer the Lib Dems a referendum on AV+, and would likely make policy concessions and offer senior jobs as well. Top blogger Guido Fawkes, Tory MEP Dan Hannan and others might like the idea of an anti-statist Con-Lib alliance, but many Lib Dems still consider themselves closer to the Labour party, and if Labour alone is offering electoral reform, the only sticking point becomes the prime minister.

Read more from Greg Callus:
- All eyes on the prize...and on the second prize
- Electoral reform - who would be the winners?
- Could a minority government deal be done?

Brown's earlier conversation with Clegg has been referred to as a diatribe - though both parties reject that suggestion insisting it was amicable.  And in sensitive negotiations, it is difficult to see personality clashes (for which the PM is infamous) not getting in the way.

Sensing perhaps the difficulty of having Brown insist on keeping Number 10, John Mann (Labour MP for Bassetlaw) has become the first Labour MP since the election to suggest that Brown should no longer lead the Labour party, with former sports minister Kate Hoey adding her voice today.

Labour would have to make many concessions to assemble a coalition government that could force its way past Cameron. The Lib Dems would extract much beyond their demand for a more proportional voting system – top jobs for Clegg, Cable, Huhne and others, plus reviews of key policies.

The SNP-Plaid would likely want moves to greater autonomy for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. The latter is easier to grant according to the Roberts Report, the former might mean a referendum on Scottish independence, which would more-than-decimate both the Lib Dems and Labour in a UK General Election if passed.

But the same problem faces Cameron – if the Tory faithful would revolt over electoral reform, so too would they be furious at any deal that threatened the integrity of the Union (and getting support from the SNP would perhaps kibosh any deal with the DUP, for whom the integrity of the UK is a rather pressing issue).

Greater autonomy in Wales is not such a problem, but Plaid will surely not break the close relationship they have with the SNP at Westminster.

So neither Labour nor the Conservatives can likely command a majority without the support of the Lib Dems. The process of forging a formal coalition might be easier between Labour and Clegg's party (because it meets the highest priority of making AV+ possible), but Cameron will be much more comfortable operating a minority government if he can just get Clegg to support the Conservative Party on a "supply and confidence basis" (agree to join the Tories for money bills and votes of no confidence).

So there are three serious options on the table:

1) A Con-Lib coalition, where the Lib Dems get top jobs, but no Commons electoral reform.
2) A minority Conservative government, supported by the Lib Dems on a supply and confidence basis (but no Commons electoral reform, or top jobs for Clegg and his team).
3) A Lab-Lib-SDLP-Alliance-SNP-Plaid "Coalition of the Left" with a working majority (Lib Dems get electoral reform and top jobs, nationalists get autonomy policies).

Gaby Hinsliff writes:
- The tricky decision that face tactical voters
- The 'dog that doesn't bark' - when a politician's silence speaks volumes
- Smaller parties eye up benefits of a hung parliament

The decision will likely come down to Nick Clegg. His party will be livid if he enters coalition (which means taking responsibility for governmental decisions, with the political price to be paid) without getting electoral reform commitments.

However, would the Lib Dem faithful really rather that he prop up David Cameron, without even getting jobs in the Cabinet and the chance to really affect policy? It is the split in how to deal with the Conservatives that gives the third option a chance – Labour will be hungry for it, and the minor parties will likely be interested too.

The downside is the perception of propping up an unpopular Prime Minister who lost an election – indeed, were Labour to topple Brown, this deal might be rather likely indeed. Whether Clegg would consent for a new Labour leader to outrank him (the veteran of the Leaders' debates) in a coalition government is not clear, making the personality of the PM a potential deal-breaker.

The Lib Dems could support Brown or a new Labour PM on a "supply and confidence" basis too, but it is not clear whether the diminished perception of 'propping up a government that lost' would be ameliorated sufficiently to justify not claiming some of the offices of state.

What is suggested by these scenarios is that any option in which David Cameron becomes Prime Minister will likely see another election relatively soon. The earliest another election would likely be held would be October after the party conference season – the summer holidays complicate voting and polling, but British Summer Time is preferable as it is still light in the evenings which encourages turnout.

Having had some experience of government, David Cameron would likely want to win a mandate by securing an overall majority in his honeymoon period. The minority government option almost demands this – a formal coalition might delay another general election until 2011, even 2012, but would probably not last a full five years unless the Conservatives polling position was incredibly weak.

The most difficult decisions of the next week lie with Nick Clegg. He will be kingmaker, but the price that he extracts (or fails to extract) in return for his party's support will be the critical factor in deciding the occupant of Number 10 Downing Street for the duration of the 55th Parliament.

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