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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.

By E.J. Dionne  | May 6, 2010; 8:37 AM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Comments

One problem with this analogy (and I speak as a person who voted for Pres Obama in the last election): it takes as fact that the 2000 election was "stolen."

It was a very close election, no question. But when a group of newspapers went through and recounted all those dangling chad ballots etc applying different rules, Bush won FL in all the rules set except one (IIRC, the irony was that the only set of rules where Gore "won" was the most restrictive rules that Bush campaign was arguing for). And under the rules in place, that meant all FL's electoral votes went where (as near as we can humanly determine) the correct candidate.

In a razor-close election there was no way the result could come in without generating anger and a sense of "we wuz robbed". "Making every vote count" vs. "keep re-counting until we get a result we like", that sort of thing. And it's a huge relief to me that the infamous "butterfly ballot" that managed to generate a wildly improbably number of votes for Pat Buchanan in a highly Jewish district was designed by a Democrat (confirmation of the old adage "never automatically assume malice what could just as easily be explained by stupidity").

But those who (consciously or not) keep asserting the 2000 election was "stolen" are just as guilty of close-mindedness as those who accept as fact the underlying assumptions of Fox News.

Posted by: Banzai45 | May 6, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Funny, but for most of the U.S., the 2000 election wasn't a constitutional crisis. The party with the majority in accordance with the law won the election.

Posted by: Benson | May 6, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Most likely scenario:

Conservatives win 300 – 325 seats

Though just short of a Commons majority, the Conservatives would be likely to do a deal with Northern Irish unionists and, potentially, Scottish and Welsh nationalists in order to get their first Queen’s Speech through the Commons. The most likely outcome is an early second election, either because the minority government is defeated in the Commons, or because Mr Cameron goes to the country early seeking a Commons majority. If Cameron doesn't get his majority today, he'll get it in the next election

It's laughable that Dionne, who can barely write coherently about US politics, is now opining on the UK's.

Posted by: lure1 | May 6, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

If the Labour and Liberal Democrats together win a majority of the votes, why would anyone question their right to form a coalition government? I don't understand what the Conservatives could do.

Posted by: cassander | May 6, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

At the end of the day, the conservatives, if they the most MPs, will have to show majority in the parliament shortly after forming the govt. If they do not, then Labor can join with Liberal Democrats to form the govt and show the majority. It is that simple in a parliamentary system.

If nobody party can put together a simple majority, a new election has to be called.

Britain may have to learn from its former colony India how to put together a coalition govt.

Posted by: ak1967 | May 6, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse


Most likely scenario:

Conservatives win 300 – 325 seats

Though just short of a Commons majority, the Conservatives would be likely to do a deal with Northern Irish unionists and, potentially, Scottish and Welsh nationalists in order to get their first Queen’s Speech through the Commons. The most likely outcome is an early second election, either because the minority government is defeated in the Commons, or because Mr Cameron goes to the country early seeking a Commons majority. If Cameron doesn't get his majority today, he'll get it in the next election

It's laughable that Dionne, who can barely write coherently about US politics, is now opining on the UK's.

Posted by: lure1 | May 6, 2010 11:34 AM
_____________________________
He seems to understand UK politics better than you do. Either that or your math skills need work. Anything above 310 and the Conservatives have an outright, though thin, majority in the Commons and can form a majority government.

I suspect he is more coherent about U.S. politics than you are, as well.

Posted by: luridone | May 6, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Kettle is quoted as stating "...the Tories seem willing to muscle the conventions and the constitution aside." What constitution? I was under the impression the U.K. does not have a written constitution like the U.S. Perhaps an expert on the U.K. could clear this up for us.

Posted by: WoodingsCBI | May 6, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

In response to Benson: Bush won 5-4.

In response to Bansai: The Media Consortium muddled both the application and the reporting of their own survey. At least 2000 votes were never counted in the survey even though they should have been legal votes under Florida law. These votes were ones in which the same candidate was named more than once on a ballot-punched or checked in the proper space and then written in by name. One report indicates that Gore might have gained up to 500 votes if those were counted as required under Florida statute.

While I can't be certain how any actual recount would have played out-Gore should have been demanding a straight statewide recount (it would have been harder for the SCOTUS to scuttle) and not the pick and choose one he went for-I will always be sure of one thing, the plurality of Florida voters left the voting booth believing they had voted for Al Gore.

And that and $5 gets you a cup of coffee.

BTW despite the argument on this, I think EJ's larger point was that the team that declares victory and screams thief would have a huge advantage. That was certainly borne out in Florida. Every effort to count votes was met by cries of "THIEF!" and by thugs shutting down the counts. It was very effective.

Posted by: howie14 | May 6, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Woodings CBI, Great Britain has a Constitution, although it not written down in a single document. It consists of statutes, court decisions, and traditions, although Parliament is free to change the Constitution as it sees fit. It did this when it changed the Constitutional rule that a defendant's refusal to testify cannot be used against him. Now it can be.

Posted by: sim55 | May 6, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

" and for a political junkie like me, two national elections in one year was a small touch of heaven."

Isn't it wonderful that "junkie" has now become a term one can be proud of, or at least light-heartedly ascribe to oneself?

I am looking to see a prize for the woman who had the most abortions by the age of 35, or the for the man who bedded the most women between the ages of 70 and 75. (I mean the ages of the women he bedded).

For who can (or should) stop "progress"?

Isn't progress the thing we all love and want? :)

Posted by: rohitcuny | May 6, 2010 6:42 PM | Report abuse

"He seems to understand UK politics better than you do"

Only because he's quoting someone else.

When it comes to original thought, the only thing he knows are love poems to Obama.

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Posted by: eeryrtuertyrtyeryt | May 6, 2010 9:50 PM | Report abuse

_____________________________
He seems to understand UK politics better than you do. Either that or your math skills need work. Anything above 310 and the Conservatives have an outright, though thin, majority in the Commons and can form a majority government.

I suspect he is more coherent about U.S. politics than you are, as well.

Posted by: luridone | May 6, 2010 3:33 PM |-------------------------------------
Nice try. There are 650 seats in the House of Commons. 326 gives them an outright majority. 310 does not. Although anything around 310 and the Ulster Unionists would give the Tories a majority without having to deal with the LibDems. At this hour the Tories look like they'll be in the 300-25 range which I posted as the most likely scenario. Care to have some tea with your crow?

Posted by: lure1 | May 6, 2010 10:51 PM | Report abuse

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