Source: Financial Times

The campaign ends, so to the bazaar of a hung parliament

By George Parker and Kiran Stacey

ParliamentThe UK election campaign is almost over and the political bazaar of a hung parliament is about to begin. Barring a late shift in the polls, neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband alone is expected to win a majority.

If Labour wins the most seats, things would be relatively simple. Mr Miliband, the party leader, would seek to form a minority government and govern with the informal support of the Scottish National party, perhaps with Liberal Democrat help.

However, most polls suggest the more likely outcome is that Mr Cameron will finish with the largest number of seats — projections suggest somewhere near 290 — but well short of a majority. What would happen then?

May 8: Mr Cameron’s allies expect he would return to Downing Street and declare victory on the basis that the Conservatives were the biggest party. Coalition talks with the Liberal Democrats could start within hours.

Under the rules signed off by Mr Cameron and laid down in the Cabinet Manual (the document that explains how the government should operate) the incumbent prime minister has to resign only in the circumstances set out in the much pored-over paragraph 2.12. [See below]

It says: “An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.”

Mr Cameron’s allies expect the prime minister to push ahead with preparations for his Queen’s Speech legislative programme, even if he is not sure he can win a majority of 323 seats in the 650-seat Commons chamber — the number being lower because Sinn Féin MPs do not take their five seats.

Constitutional experts say Mr Cameron has the right to test his support in the Commons, even if it looks like Labour and SNP MPs combined might be able to defeat him.

May 9-10: If Mr Cameron has won the most seats, he is likely to begin talks with the Lib Dems and others to try to assemble support for his Queen’s Speech. In parallel, Mr Cameron would also have to convince his own MPs of the desirability of a Con-Lib coalition.

Assuming Mr Miliband is still within touching distance of power — with the expected informal support of perhaps 45-50 SNP MPs — his job will be to stay in the game as a prime minister-in-waiting and prepare his party and potential allies to vote down a Conservative Queen’s Speech.

May 11-18: Mr Cameron would use his incumbency and occupancy of Number 10 to present the country with an image of continuity and stability — even if he has yet to establish whether he can command a majority.

George Osborne is planning to travel to Brussels on Tuesday for the latest talks on the Greek debt crisis: he will take the chance to reinforce his claim that the global economy is fragile and the UK cannot risk a change of government.

Coalition talks with the Lib Dems could be wrapped up this week. David Laws, a Lib Dem negotiator, says a week is long enough to secure a deal. But MPs in both parties would have to approve it.

Nick Clegg has said he would talk exclusively to the leader of the biggest party. But if talks stall — or if the coalition terms on offer are not acceptable — he could begin parallel talks with Labour.

May 18: Scheduled return of parliament. Newly elected MPs are sworn in and elect the Speaker, who presides over debates and decides which MPs may speak. In practice, many will already have returned to Westminster to take part in the dealmaking and to keep any eye on what their leaders are negotiating.

Queen’s Speech

May 27: Scheduled date for the state opening of parliament, although Mr Cameron could advise the Queen to bring it forward, to end political uncertainty. The Queen will read out the government’s legislative plan and MPs will begin a week of debates on its content.

The crucial test

Early June: The crucial test. Almost a month after the election, MPs would vote on the Queen’s Speech. If Mr Cameron fails to command a majority — possibly accompanied by a vote of no-confidence — he would almost certainly resign immediately.

Labour officials say the party would vote against a Conservative Queen’s Speech in any circumstances and the SNP has said the same. If Labour and the SNP, plus other smaller parties such as Plaid Cymru and the Greens, can muster 324 votes or so, Mr Cameron would be finished.

Mr Miliband would then have a chance to present his own legislative programme — constitutional experts say the Queen would not have to return to Westminster to present it — and then test his authority in the Commons.

Victory would establish Mr Miliband as prime minister. Defeat would almost certainly trigger a second general election, probably in the autumn.

The Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011 is a potential complication. This requires a two-thirds Commons majority to trigger a dissolution of parliament — implying that the Conservatives and Labour would have to agree at the same time it was in their interests to have another election.

In practice, if neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Miliband was able to command a majority, constitutional experts say the parties would draw the conclusion that another election was unavoidable.


From the Cabinet Manuel

Parliaments with no overall majority in the House of Commons


Where an election does not result in an overall majority for a single party, the incumbent government remains in office unless and until the Prime Minister tenders his or her resignation and the Government’s resignation to the Sovereign.

An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.


Where a range of different administrations could potentially be formed, political parties may wish to hold discussions to establish who is best able to command the confidence of the House of Commons and should form the next government. The Sovereign would not expect to become involved in any negotiations, although there are responsibilities on those involved in the process to keep the Palace informed.

This could be done by political parties or the Cabinet Secretary. The Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister may also have a role, for example, in communicating with the Palace.


If the leaders of the political parties involved in any negotiations seek the support of the Civil Service, this support may only be organised by the Cabinet Secretary with the authorisation of the Prime Minister. If the Prime Minister authorises any support it would be focused and provided on an equal basis to all the parties involved, including the party that was currently in government. The Civil Service would continue to advise the incumbent government in the usual way.


Following the election in May 2010, the Prime Minister authorised the Civil Service to provide such support to negotiations between political parties.


As long as there is significant doubt following an election over the Government’s ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons, certain restrictions on government activity apply; see paragraphs 2.27–2.34.


The nature of the government formed will be dependent on discussions between political parties and any resulting agreement. Where there is no overall majority, there are essentially three broad types of government that could be formed:

  • single-party, minority government, where the party may (although not necessarily) be supported by a series of ad hoc agreements based on common interests;
  • formal inter-party agreement, for example the Liberal–Labour pact from 1977 to 1978; or
  • formal coalition government, which generally consists of ministers from more than one political party, and typically commands a majority in the House of Commons.

Restrictions on government activity


While the government retains its responsibility to govern and ministers remain in charge of their departments, governments are expected by convention to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character in the period immediately preceding an election, immediately afterwards if the result is unclear, and following the loss of a vote of confidence. In all three circumstances essential business must be allowed to continue.

Government activity between the start of an election period and polling day


In the period immediately preceding an election, the Cabinet Office publishes guidance on activities in the run up to polling day. The Prime Minister writes to ministers in similar terms.


During this period, the government retains its responsibility to govern, ministers remain in charge of their departments and essential business is carried on. Ministers continue in office and it is customary for them to observe discretion in initiating any action of a continuing or long-term character. This means the deferral of activity such as: taking or announcing major policy decisions; entering into large/contentious procurement contracts or significant long-term commitments; and making some senior public appointments and approving Senior Civil Service appointments, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money. If decisions cannot wait they may be handled by temporary arrangements or following relevant consultation with the Opposition.

Activity post election


Immediately following an election, if there is no overall majority, for as long as there is significant doubt over the Government’s ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons, many of the restrictions set out at paragraphs 2.27–2.29 would continue to apply. The point at which the restrictions on financial and other commitments should come to an end depends on circumstances, but may often be either when a new Prime Minister is appointed by the Sovereign or where a government’s ability to command the confidence of the Commons has been tested in the House of Commons.