The 2015 political dance-off
- 27 May 2014
- From the section UK Politics
Shall we dance?
Another hung parliament? Another Coalition?
After the local and European Parliament elections last week, to state the bleedin' obvious, neither of the big two parties can be confident of winning a majority in the 2015 House of Commons. It's still possible - given that almost anything can happen when you feed four, five or even six party politics through the First Past The Post electoral system - but it is certainly true to say that no party will approach the next election with the kind of momentum Tony Blair enjoyed before his 1997 landslide.
It is both futile and fascinating to speculate about who might dance with who if there was another hung parliament in 2015.
Everything would depend on the arithmetic. Would the numbers allow two parties to join forces and command a majority? In 2010 the only possible majority coalition was the one which emerged - the Cameron-Clegg Con-Lib government.
A Lab-Lib Dem combination would not have had an automatic majority and would have had to live hand to mouth, cobbling together deals with smaller parties and individual MPs on a daily basis. Next time round a coalition might require the support of Scottish or Welsh nationalists, or UKIP or the Greens, or the Northern Ireland parties, in addition to, or maybe instead of the Lib Dems.
And each potential partner would bring a list of demands to the table, and each would doubtless be subject to having its chain jerked by its own domestic considerations.
Then there's the awkward issue of whether the parties would be prepared to dance.
Some Conservative voices are already warning against a Coalition Mark II with the Lib Dems. And the Conservative MPs' formidable shop steward, Graham Brady, the Chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee is making it clear that the parliamentary party would expect the right to vote on any new coalition deal.
Equally, would a bruised and reduced Liberal Democrat Party be prepared to go through the wringer again? And could a Parliamentary Labour Party with a substantial number of MPs with a visceral loathing of Lib Dems be persuaded to embrace them, as the price of power?
The party meetings after the 2015 election could be fascinating and decisive.
Nick Clegg's position within the current Coalition was much strengthened by the consent process he had to go through in 2010, in which each major part of his party had to metaphorically dip its hands in the blood.
I suspect other potential coalition players will see the wisdom of doing something similar this time around - but it does risk the possibility of a deal being rejected.
Of course there would be policy red lines - particularly around the EU, although the politics of that issue is evolving rapidly after UKIP's triumph changed the rules of natural selection for the next election.
To take a few obvious examples, the Greens wouldn't touch fracking or nuclear energy, the nationalists would have demands around devolution (whatever the result of the Scottish independence referendum) and the Conservatives would insist on some kind of electoral boundary adjustment.
But I suspect another key issue for all concerned would be the internal wiring of a future coalition.
How much leverage would smaller partners be granted? Would the "Quad" of Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Alexander continue as the Coalition politbureau?
Would other structures have to change? There is much Conservative chuntering over the DPM's use of his chairmanship of the Cabinet's Home Affairs Committee to control the legislative agenda and block policies he doesn't like. Would he (or another leader of another party) get the same kind of influence if they only brought 30-40 MPs to the table, as opposed to the Lib Dems' current 56?
A smaller Lib Dem party in a future coalition would have fewer ministers in fewer government departments. Would it even have the deputy PM slot? And at what point would membership of a government cease to be worth the candle?
The same questions would be asked within other possible Coalition partners - if the next election yielded a substantial phalanx of UKIP MPs, or if there was a large bloc of SNP MPs. And some relationships would clearly be more difficult than others.
Could Labour possibly work in partnership with their deadly rivals in the SNP? Would either of the main parties want a formal tie-up with the DUP, and its eight MPs, and find themselves swept hither and yon by the changing tides of Northern Ireland politics? (And, incidentally, might the prospect of real leverage in a hung parliament persuade Sinn Fein to break the ancient taboo which prevents their five MPs taking their seats in the Commons?)
All of this would take place within a much more independent-minded House of Commons, where MPs have become much more willing to defy their party whips.
That problem is intensified because the Commons' procedures are now more open, giving rebels more ways of forcing issues to a vote. Against that background, a coalition with a majority would still be hard to manage; a minority administration would have to engage with smaller parties and awkward squaddies on a daily basis.
Anyone who watched James Graham's brilliant play, This House, which depicted the extreme whipping required to keep the Callaghan Government afloat in the late '70s will have some idea of the challenges involved.
Mr Graham may be able to write an even more gripping sequel set in the parliament of 2015.