Florida in Britain?
As British voters cast their ballots today in an election that could very well result in no party having a parliamentary majority, there is already speculation about what could happen the day after the voting. Who will get to form a government? Will there be a minority government or a coalition government?
Because Britain has not had a minority administration since the election of February 1974, there is not a lot of history or precedent. In that case, the Labour Party under Harold Wilson edged out the Conservatives under Prime Minister Ted Heath. Heath stepped aside, Wilson formed a minority government, and it held office until October of that year when Wilson called a new election and won a bare majority. (I was a student in Britain then, and for a political junkie like me, two national elections in one year was a small touch of heaven.)
But what will happen this time? In the Guardian, columnist Martin Kettle warns of one of the most dangerous prospects. He suggests the possibility of a “constitutional crisis” and “a very British coup.”
His idea is premised on the following election outcome: The Conservatives emerge as the largest party, with around 300 seats. Labour gets 210 MPs and the Liberal Democrats get 110, putting them, together, in reach of a bare majority. He doesn’t pretend to know that this will happen, only that something along these lines is quite plausible. Let Martin pick up the story from there:
Friday morning dawns with this result. So who gets to govern? Very clearly, Labour has had a terrible defeat. Its chances of remaining in office in such circumstances would rightly be poor. But suppose Labour, under Gordon Brown (we can forget the idea of an instant leadership coup), is quick to offer the Liberal Democrats a coalition government, with at least five Lib Dem members of the cabinet, and an offer to introduce the Alternative Vote Plus system, subject to referendum, before the next election. And suppose that Nick Clegg says yes, I have to consult my party about an offer like that.
Note what is being suggested here – and also be clear what is not being suggested. All I am posing is the possibility that Labour, though defeated, tries to win time to discuss the possibility of forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats to stop the Conservatives taking office and that the Lib Dems agree to look at the option. . . . It is increasingly clear from David Cameron's interviews over the past few days that the Tories would not merely oppose such an effort (perfectly reasonably on one level) but that they might also, much more controversially, try to disrupt and overturn it. Cameron seems to be suggesting that in the circumstances imagined above, he would do two things: first, he would declare the Tories the winners and, second, he would encourage the view that Labour was trying to steal an election it had lost. You only have to imagine what Saturday morning's Sun, Mail and Express would look like to see how real a threat this would be.
The last line is a reference to pro-Conservative newspapers, which, in Martin’s scenario, would play the role of Fox News in the fight. Martin goes on to argue this:
Of course, in many respects, the Tories would have a morally strong position to govern in such circumstances, even stronger than Wilson had in February 1974. The difference, however, is that the Tories seem willing to muscle the conventions and the constitution aside and begin their effort to govern with an out-and-out challenge both to convention and the cabinet secretary. What's more, and more important, I suspect they would get away with it.
If a certain analogy comes into your mind, it’s the same analogy that came to Kettle: “If events pan out the way I am positing, it would be the Conservatives, not Labour or the Liberal Democrats, who would, in fact, steal the election. It would be our very own Florida 2000 – but with newspaper editors rather than supreme court judges tipping the balance.”
Maybe nothing like this will happen. Yet I could certainly imagine that if Labour and the Lib Dems end up with a majority of seats, they might well consider the possibility of a coalition. Such a coalition would be far more likely if Labour could avoid an absolute drubbing. Complicating things is the fact that Nick Clegg, the leader of the Lib Dems, does not seem to feel (to put it very mildly) any warmth toward Brown. So there’s talk of pushing Brown aside and having a Lib/Lab coalition government under someone else. The other possibility is that the Conservatives will get close enough to a majority of seats that their claim on the right to form a minority government will be nearly irresistible.
We’ll know all this soon. But if there is, indeed, chaos and torment tomorrow morning, Martin Kettle will be able to say he warned you.
| May 6, 2010; 8:37 AM ET
Categories: Dionne | Tags: E.J. Dionne
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