No clear majority-so heading for a minority government
As the opinion Polls predicted, we have a hung Parliament, with one result still to come.
The Conservatives had required a 326 majority. With 649 of the 650 seats declared (1700 hrs) the Tories are on 306 (+97), Labour on 258 (-91) and the Liberal Democrats on 57 (-5).The death of a UKIP candidate in Thirsk, after nominations, means that the poll has been delayed there until 27 May.
In the event, the exit poll was fairly accurate. The Tories needed a 7% swing nationally and could only manage around 5%, though some early results on the ‘swingometer’ suggested they might just secure that majority. But the swings throughout the night were variable and showed no clear pattern.
They won many seats, indeed the most with the largest share of the vote-36% compared to Labours 29% and the Lib Dems 23% but largely failed to eject Labour candidates they had targeted and hoped to defeat like Sadiq Khan in Tooting and Gisela Stuart in Birmingham Edgbaston.
Labour saw two former home secretaries defeated in Jacqui Smith and Charles Clarke, but the schools secretary Ed Balls and former communities secretary Hazel Blears escaped, just, with their seats.
The Tories de-capitation policy didn’t work, nor did the Ashcroft investment in key marginals deliver the expected returns. With no party a clear winner we are in minority government territory.
On the positives, for the Tories -they won by far the most seats and largest percentage of the vote, with 2 million more votes than Labour, and a larger percentage of votes than Labour gained in the last Election, but failed to secure a majority which was obviously their aim and some insiders had thought very possible, although the Tories had let slip a double digit lead over the last six months. But they failed to make any inroads in Scotland winning just one seat, the same as before, made very modest headway in Wales and in Northern Ireland their alliance with the official Unionists has produced no dividend at all. As for Labour, they achieved about what they expected to achieve, attempting to win a fourth term with a relatively unpopular leader and against a dismal economic backdrop . Their biggest concern in the circumstances was not to be overtaken by the Lib Dems and they fended off this threat and remained very strong in Scotland.
However their 29% share of the vote was just one percentage point above that achieved when Michael Foot was leader, regarded as the party’s darkest post- war low. Make no mistake though this was a defeat for Gordon Brown. The electorate signalled that they were fed up with Labour, want change but aren’t sure enough about the other options . Their share of the vote and number of seats plummeted, whereas the Tories increased significantly on both measures and even the Lib Dem vote was up by 1%.
The Lib Dems have grounds for being most disappointed, given the high expectations of the big breakthrough on the back of Nick Cleggs impressive performances in the TV debates. They threatened to break the duopoly, but having flirted with them, voters went back to their old habits, realising, perhaps , that under closer scrutiny, they were no panacea for change and were at the end of the day hardly the mould breakers they purported to be. The Green Party won their first UK seat in Brighton. And the Alliance in Northern Ireland, ousted Peter Robinson of the DUP to win its first ever seat.
So what now?
Under constitutional convention, the Prime Minister has the right to try to form a Government. Gordon Brown remains Prime Minister until he concludes that he cannot form a government and resigns. He can sit it out and try to cut deals and attempt to form a Government, advised inevitably by Alastair Campbell (do they never learn) and the first big test will be the Queens speech on 25 May .But his power and moral authority is leaching away.His pitch had been- I am the experienced one, who can lead you out of this mess.Back me to do just that . Just 29% of the electorate bought it.
Interestingly Lord Mandelson, in an interview with the BBC , conceded that the country had voted for change and accepted that replacing Gordon Brown was one of a number of options on the morning after the night before. The trouble for Brown is that a vast majority of the country doesn’t want him as leader, so his authority and ability to lead is probably fatally compromised and such an arrangement with him still in charge hardly looks sustainable. But Browns weakness places the Liberal Democrats potentially in a strong position despite both parties weak showing in the election .Tory shadow education spokesman Michael Gove has described any such arrangement between Labour/Lib Dems as a “ coalition of the defeated” .
The irony is that having utterly failed to fulfil the huge expectations of an improved Lib Dem performance, Nick Clegg may, after all, play the role of kingmaker in this election. (forget the tosh about the electors being the kingmaker). If Clegg entered such an arrangement he would make it conditional on the introduction of proportional representation (and probably an election within a couple of years) .However after what he said during the election this arrangement could come back to haunt him and the party and could be very damaging for the party over the longer term. They will be aware too that minority governments don’t tend to last long before another election is required and a quick election, after a failed minority government could all but destroy his party not least because they have no funding to run a campaign. Labour Ministers Alan Johnson and Lord Mandelson have clearly signalled that they want to turn their dream of a Lib Lab pact into reality, but they would have to prove to the country and the markets that a coalition of two losing parties would be a more stable government than a Conservative minority government. Not easy.
But their big challenge is to resolve the Brown issue. The other significant alternative is that the Tories form a minority government and interestingly some senior Liberal Democrats believe that Cameron has a greater moral (rather than constitutional) right to be given this option.Cameron is already working on plans to form a minority government.
There seems to be three possible rival power blocs.
First, Labour 260; Liberal Democrats: 57 SDLP: 3 Alliance : 1; Total: 321
Second, Conservative: 306 Democratic Unionist Party (NI): 8 Independent Unionist : 1 Total 315
Third, Conservatives 306; Lib Dems 57; Total 363
And ,of course, the Non-aligned: SNP + PC: 9 SDLP 3 Green: 1 Total; 13
But it seems clear there is only one potential stable majority available. That is a combination of the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. A Labour./Lib Dem coalition with the minority parties ie SNP etc is possible but inherently less stable, so less likely to endure.
The question, therefore, is what terms will David Cameron offer and what will Nick Clegg accept and how will they keep their respective parties on board. Backbenchers on both sides will be divided.
This is intriguing and messy politics. But its probably fair to say that no party, based on their campaigns, really deserved to win this election outright.
In any case we are likely to have another election possibly within a year. There is an argument that goes- better not to be in government just now because of the challenges faced by any government and the unpopular choices that will need to be made, a government moreover that will probably fail within a year, so damaging future prospects. But it would take a brave leader not to seize an opportunity for power if offered. Especially for those who have been in opposition for so long.