Hung parliament: The numbers game (4 May 2010)
A slight difference in seats won can drastically change the long-term outcome of government, prompting divisions and even a second election.
In principle, it is simple to determine whether a party has a majority in the House of Commons or not. There will be 650 seats in the new parliament, so to obtain the smallest overall majority requires 326 seats, giving a majority of two.
However, it is rather more complicated in practice, because of the complexities of the devolved British constitution and party politics. In 1964 the Speaker was the only MP unaffiliated to the three largest British parties. In 2005 there were 31 of them, and the number could well increase this time, and the disposition of these “fourth parties” affects where we can place the winning post.
There are some election outcomes which, while technically being a hung parliament, would allow the Commons to be run by the largest single party without the need for Cameron or Brown to consult the Liberal Democrats.
The Speaker customarily does not vote except to resolve ties, so a party with 325 seats will have an effective majority of one (assuming that John Bercow holds Buckingham and is re-elected to the Speaker’s chair in the new parliament). Sinn Féin MPs do not recognise the sovereignty of Westminster and therefore do not take their seats or vote, so the Commons will probably be around five MPs short. So 323 MPs is a working majority of two.
Staying with Northern Ireland, the Conservatives can rely on any MPs elected from their Ulster Unionist party alliance (a couple, perhaps) and Labour has a rather looser bond with the Social Democratic and Labour party and the independent (ex-UUP) Sylvia Hermon, which will account for two to four MPs. The two big British parties can therefore regard the winning post as being around 321 seats. The first Queen’s speech in the new parliament, on 25 May, will come before the postponed election in Thirsk and Malton (27 May), so 320 will be enough for a short period.
Even a bit below the 320-seat mark, there will not be much uncertainty about a party’s ability to get a Queen’s speech and other key votes through the Commons, even without Lib Dem acquiescence. The Democratic Unionist party (around eight MPs), even if it dislikes a government’s agenda, would be unlikely to precipitate another election by voting against it, and the Westminster representatives of the SNP and Plaid Cymru (10-12 seats probably) would probably feel similarly.
Taking these 20 MPs out, a government could win a Queen’s speech vote without giving more than the most minor concessions to smaller parties, in the face of opposition from the other two main parties, if it has around 310 MPs. If the largest party is much below 310, we are in proper hung parliament territory and the opinions of the Lib Dems would count. However, they would be likely to give a free pass in terms of “confidence and supply” to a party that gets over the psychological barrier of 300 seats, so most of the interesting possibilities start below that point.
Winning the key votes is one thing; day-to-day survival in the division lobbies is a bit different. A minority government with fewer than 320 MPs might have to take a relaxed view of Commons defeats on legislation (ministers often need to be away on government business), although it will be bolstered by the SNP and Plaid Cymru’s self-denying ordinance not to vote on what they consider “England only” matters. But the committee stages may be the problem, as the government would be vulnerable to defeat if the composition of committees reflected the lack of an overall majority in the house. It might have particular difficulty overturning Lords amendments and dealing with any backbench rebellions (although in the circumstances backbenchers would be less inclined to rebel than usual).
The position is not symmetrical. If the Conservatives are the minority government, they may face a poor attendance record from Labour MPs whose morale will be low and who will be busy tending to their constituencies. The opposition in general would not want to push its luck against a new minority Tory government, for fear of triggering a new election, while a minority Labour government would seek to avoid a second election and be more inclined to explicit co-operation with smaller parties to avoid being brought down by a “one more heave” front of Tories, Lib Dems and others.
A more nuanced idea of where the winning post is on election night is therefore 326 for a technical majority, 320 for an effective majority, 310 for a single party government without agreements with other parties, and around 300 for an undisputed, if provisional, right to govern.
A perhaps odd conclusion about this is that there is a set of outcomes that would lead directly to a second election later this year or in the first half of 2011, covering the ground between the Tories winning around 300 and 340 seats (the stresses of governing with a tiny majority are as great, if not greater, than those of governing without one). A minority Conservative government with fewer than 300 seats, existing by permission of Nick Clegg, would also be looking to have another election as soon as it could. But a full Tory-Lib Dem coalition, or any stable arrangement featuring Labour, would almost certainly try to govern for a full term.
A government with a long-term perspective is therefore most likely to emerge from either an election that produces a working majority, or a proper hung parliament in which parties have to reach agreement on a programme from the start – and not from the shadowlands of 300-340 in which a government has its eye on a second election and day-to-day survival in the division lobbies.
Published 4 May 2010