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.


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.


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.


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”.


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.


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 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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6 reader comments

  1. J. R. Tomlin says:

    “Ian Davidson MP says there cannot be any kind of deal whatsoever with the SNP.” Haha! Easy to say before the election and they are wiped out in Scotland. Will Davidson even hold onto his seat is one question.

    “He speaks for all but one of the many Scottish Labour MPs…” And how many ‘Scottish Labour MPs’ will be left after May? A few I suppose but I rather doubt the opinion of the handful left will count for much.

    I suggest a more realistic analysis. If it is deal with the devil (the Labour hatred of the SNP is admittedly mouth frothing) or be out of power another 5 years, one suspects their tune will rapidly change. And it won’t be Scottish MPs making the decision.

  2. Sam Mitchell says:

    As a lifelong supporter of the SNP I can assure you that my support would leave immediately any “”deal “” was agreed with the remains of the red tories… they have used what little credibility they had in supporting the unionist parties of wm. They have a track record of failing Scotland. They had years to come clean on the cover up that they orchestrated with the McCrone report. They manipulated to keep the democratic process from interfering with their desire for power…. by gerrymandering the previous devolution plans & by trying to reach a secret deal with the libs to keep the SNP from ever achieving a governing mandate. PLUS… they have never repelled ANY law that the other branch of the tory party have enacted.

  3. Davie Hay says:

    The `over my dead body` attitude of Scottish Labour Mps is ironic in that the SNP can only be in a position where coalition is a possibility by making sure there are no (or very few) Scottish Labour MPs left.
    As luck would have it the polls seem to indicate just such a scenario in May

    Are we now supposed to believe that Labour would rather stand aside and let the Tories form a government than make a deal with the SNP?

    It’s somehow fitting. Vote red Tory get blue Tory

  4. Christopher says:

    Thanks for this article Gary.

    Another perspective to consider is that of the voter. I would say many people are put off the idea of Coalitions as a result of the way this one has panned out. Whether it be those who thought the Lib Dems wouldn’t go with the Tories, or who thought they might but wouldn’t renege on key pledges like tuition fees. Or those annoyed the Tories got watered down by the Lib Dems. Or those who voted for neither who can’t believe they’ve ended up with two parties they didn’t like. Overall I think there’s been a frustration that even as early as the Coalition Agreement parties had shelved parts of their manifestos.

    To a certain degree this is what happens when you need to form a Coalition. But the big question, perhaps even the question at the root of this article, is do you even need to have a Coalition anyway?

    The answer to this question depends on your view of the way the state should be governed. If you believe the state should be governed by a strong government, headed by a strong cabinet and strong Prime Minister, taking executive decisions that are then whipped through Parliament, then of course you need a Coalition in the event of a hung Parliament. If, however, you believe strong Parliament is required and desired, and that each MP should have an equal vote to every other, then the need for a Coalition not only lessens, but it might even be preferential not to have a over-strong Coalition Government.

    Indeed, is it a coincidence that over the last five years the role of the Select Committee has risen to the fore? Other factors are at play, but with more room for one of the Coalition parties to renege on some issue or other, the focus shifts to Parliamentary consensus and being able to build momentum behind a particular perspective. Then when it comes to the House of Commons itself, look at what happened with the Syria vote for example.

    To me, Coalition was perhaps needed to give security to the general population and ‘the markets’, given the unfamiliar Parliamentary position, particularly with the main two parties (perhaps with a little self interest) claiming that a hung Parliament would lead to meltdown. However people have now seen that a hung Parliament isn’t catastrophic and decisions can be made, and that sometimes this check on the executive power of the Prime Minister and Cabinet can often lead to unpopular policies being stopped in their tracks.

    Therefore, perhaps there will be a greater appetite for informal coalitions on an issue by issue basis? Not vote-by-vote though, it must be said. It must be possible, using the manifestos, to find common interests on similar policy positions, such that the ruling party (with most MPs) can construct a 5 year programme guided by their cabinet, but relying on various parties in various combinations to pass these policies.

    For voters, this leaves more room for parties sticking to the policies, principles and pledges they campaign upon, whilst also ensuring that where contentious and important issues are raised rigorous debate takes place.

    For many of us, a strong Parliament is preferential to a strong Government, but regardless, come May, it might just become the most inevitable outcome.

  5. Philip Edwards says:


    In the cynical world of capitalist politics Miliband would do well to consider the failed examples of James Callaghan and Gordon Brown. Both of them failed to call an election early on and both lost the election when it WAS called.

    Not that it matters much. Whoever “wins” the election it won’t be the “ordinary” citizen..

  6. J. R. Tomlin says:

    You never explain what difference Scottish MPs make since they won’t be MPs any more anyway. While being voted out of office may not quite be ‘over their dead bodies’ but I believe it is close enough.

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