(written on 7th May)
The British have voted in what some are now calling the Mick Jagger election – no one| can get satisfaction. No single party has secured a sufficient number of seats to govern with a majority. It is now clear, with all but one constituency still to declare (delayed due to the death of a candidate), that it will be a hung parliament, with the Conservatives having the largest number of seats (estimated to be 307 when all results are declared), with the Labour Party coming second and the Liberals a disappointing third. The Conservatives clearly won more of the popular vote and both Liberals and Labour lost a considerable number of seats – indeed it is a real defeat for Labour, the worst collapse in over eighty years.
The results contain a number of surprises. Several former cabinet members have lost their seats. The Liberals failed to secure the momentum which many thought would lead them to be either the second largest party or a breakthrough in terms of the total number of seats – they are actually worse off than before the election in terms of representation. In fact, the Liberals are down and some well known Liberal figures are no longer sitting members of parliament.
What happens now will be this. After a period of reflection during Friday, caused by the pending thirty or so seats due to be declared during the day, Gordon Brown as sitting Prime Minister will wait to see how negotiations between Nick Clegg and David Cameron go, since Cameron has offered a wide ranging alliance with the Liberals for a national government. Horse trading at the level of policy, position and program is already underway between Clegg and Cameron, with Cameron making the running. Brown is playing a wait and see game, but is likely to leave office by Tuesday at the latest.
There will be a concern to have a clear decision before the markets open on Monday. The last thing any Government needs is a run on sterling. However, this requires some real clarity on the part of all leaders and a sense of dignity coupled with foresight to ensure a smooth transition.
The talk, at least amongst the political chattering classes, is of coalition, with some key liberals occupying cabinet positions. The more likely decision, according to Conservative insiders, is for Cameron to govern as a minority, using Stephen Harper’s Canadian government as a model. While this will be his initial instinct, it means that a large part of his strategy would be sacrificed due to his inability to secure the support of the other parties for drastic cuts to public service and significant changes to the education and health systems. The art of the possible will replace the science of the necessary. Cameron will be working hard to craft an agenda which will keep him in power for at least two years if not longer – he will need the support of a cross section of the House to make this possible.
What will be different is that the Conservatives and Liberals will agree a program that they will both support for the medium to long term – scrapping identity cards, school reform, action of the economy, changes in the House of Lords and electoral system, some changes in the tax structure and a commitment to working towards a carbon free economy. There are many areas of policy where the two parties agree, but differences are substantial – especially over Europe, the need for a replacement for Trident missiles and the speed at which they need to act on the economy.
Until Cameron can secure an arrangement with Clegg, Brown remains Prime Minister and the cabinet is intact. Brown has made an offer to Clegg that, if talks with Cameron collapse, he will be willing to seek to make arrangements with the Liberal Democratic leader. Lord Mandelson, formerly known as the Prince of Darkness and now presented as the sage of the Labour Party, suggested this morning that the electorate had voted for change. Change in how Britain is governed and a change in who governs. We will see. What is clear is that the situation is unclear until such time as Cameron is called to the Palace. It will be a busy week-end for all concerned.
At the time of writing, with all but one result declared, the Conservatives have secured 306 seats (gaining 97), Labour 258 (down 91), Liberals 55 (down 5). The Conservatives secured 36% of the popular vote, Labour 29% and Liberals 23% - the Liberals being the biggest looser in this election, since they expected to beat Labour in the popular vote. An overall majority would require 326 seats.