27 Jan 2015

Hung parliament predictions harden, coalition recedes

I hear that some senior advisers to Ed Miliband are reconciling themselves to the implausibility of a coalition even if there is a hung parliament. They are seriously pondering minority government and talking about the need for Ed Miliband to start planning for a second election as soon as September this year.

Any longer, the logic runs, and any honeymoon effect fades. The lesson of Gordon Brown’s early months in office was that the goodwill dries up pretty soon – support was drifting down even before he got into the mess of the on/off quickie election saga in 2007.

So Ed Miliband as PM with a minority administration behind him might race out a series of initiatives, many of them aimed at challenging popular perceptions like, say, his attitude to business. All of this would be aimed at creating new supporters, enough of them to repeat Harold Wilson’s success with the second 1974 general election. Support for Labour crept up from minority to majority (just) status.

The odds of a coalition after 2015 recede in your mind the more you chat around Westminster. It’s not impossible. But it’s not a hot favourite either.

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS

The Lib Dems may not have enough MPs to take one of the larger parties over the line (326) to majority status. But there are other issues at work. Lib Dems find it hard to imagine launching a second Tory/Lib coalition with the bushy-tailed enthusiasm a new government needs when things have got so scratchy in recent months.

Tory MPs say they might not let it happen a second time anyway. They mutter about toppling David Cameron even if he tried. You have to discount some of this talk as swagger that might melt as the prospect of five years in opposition confronts the MPs.

But on tonight’s programme you can hear Sir Nick Harvey warning that the party probably can’t afford another five years in coalition and if it switched to Labour it could lose what remaining support it has in Tory-facing seats.

The former Liberal party leader Lord Steel says he thinks the enthusiasm for a Lib-Con sequel coalition is pretty much restricted to individuals close to or in the leadership of the party. The further you move from the leadership you find people more interested in joining forces with Labour but extremely wary about going anywhere near coalition for a while.

SNP

Ed Miliband may not have ruled out some kind of pact with the SNP but talk to Scottish Labour MPs and he might as well. There’s an “over my dead body” quality to their reaction.

Ian Davidson MP says there cannot be any kind of deal whatsoever with the SNP. He speaks for all but one of the many Scottish Labour MPs I’ve spoken to and I’ve heard senior shadow cabinet members say they’re hearing the message loud and clear.

DUP

The DUP is pretty much salivating over the prospects of a hung parliament. I wouldn’t expect them to go near coalition and they may not want to go for “supply and confidence”, but they would be in the market for issue by issue discussions over their support.

Their long-time unionist rival, Lord Trimble, says they would be interested in “pork … money for local constituency projects” and he thinks that, for all the shared ground with the Tories on Europe and other issues, that might incline them to Labour – because, in his words, the party of looser public spending caps is the party of “more pork”.

SDLP

Labour’s sister party, the SDLP, would not go near the Tories and would be a banker for the Labour party in most tight votes. But they number only three MPs at the moment.

SINN FEIN

They don’t take up their seats in Westminster. But intriguingly I hear that hasn’t stopped Labour shadow cabinet members wooing them and testing the water to see if they could be persuaded to sit in the Commons if it helped to keep the Tories out of power.

Pat Doherty MP tells me he is regularly badgered by Labour shadow cabinet members on the question and he says he consistently replies that the republicans won’t shift their position.

UKIP/GREENS

Ukip is against joining a coalition and its shopping list for any kind of support includes a fast forward to an in/out referendum that pretty much rules out a renegotiation.

The Greens share Ukip’s resistance to the charms of coalition (if little else).

……………….

So, if it’s not a coalition after 2015, we could see “confidence and supply” support, we could see “confidence only” support.¬† You can have a time-limited or whole parliament pact arrangements. We could have¬† issue by issue discussions with parties to win the day.

You can simply keep open channels of communication and juggle different alliances for different votes, moving as some have speculated to an era in which you get less “door slamming” between parties as you never know who you might need next.

You can get a lot of stuff done if you’re in government without parliamentary votes. And you can use the levers of power to try to engineer an early election (though that’s trickier under the fixed term parliament act, it may not prove impossible).

The word “coalition” often seems to trip off the pen easily after the phrase “hung parliament” but it could well be we’re in for a different sort of arrangement after 2015 (or no arrangement at all).

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