Malcolm gives way to nobody in his admiration, formed over many decades, for the wit and wisdom of Alan Watkins, currently gilding his pension-book with columns for the Sindy.
Today’s, though, is a stretch too far. It is a detailed treatise on the nature of that curious thing, a “hung Parliament”. Quite frankly, it said it all in the sub-header:
Just because the winning party has a tiny majority, it doesn’t mean it cannot govern
That’s it. Period.
Watkins calculates that, although the magic number for a majority is 326, if we set aside the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker, the Shinners who don’t show (but collect expenses), the other Nationalists who find the journey and time excessive, the odd independent or two (who are celebrated in this week’s Economist) who can’t be decisive … it’s about a dozen less.
Malcolm would go a bit further: even a minority government can govern. All it needs is a bit of flexibility, choosing which battles to fight, squaring sections of the Opposition, keeping your own troops on side …
Which is why Malcolm went on record, a few days since, suggesting that any Party which breached the 300-seat mark would have the right to squat on the potty-of-State at Number 10.
Consider this outcome on the morning of Saturday, 8th May, 2010:
- Party A: 305
- Party B: 275
- LibDems: 50;
- Odds and sods: 20.
Clearly Party A has “won” on goal difference, particularly if they are the Cameroonies and have the highest numerical vote (would the Murdoch press settle for anything less?).
Only Party A (whoever they are) can form a Government, with the active participation (unlikely) or the tacit acceptance (by merely sitting on hands) of the LibDems. In itself, that makes the LibDems “kingmakers” (which doesn’t in itself matter) and policy-brokers (which definitely does).
If we refer back, as Watkins does, to the fall of the Callaghan government in 1979, we see the formula. Michael Foot, as Leader of the House, stitched up understandings with the Ulstermen and the Liberals. That kept things going until May, 1979, through the “Winter of Discontent” (which was all done-and-dusted by February 1979). The SNP were then alienated by the failure to implement the Scotland Act of 1978: they immediately went outside the tent, and were pissing in. It was the SNP who pulled the plug, and called the vote of confidence: the Labour Government had chosen the wrong issue on which to fight. The Tories were the dog being led by the SNP tail.
So, back to a hypothetic 2010:
Issue 1: an urgent Finance Bill, with its inevitable corollary — a Vote of Confidence.
Party B will scream, yell, throw tantrums, and vote against anything and everything proposed. Expect several long, long overnight sittings. Party B do not expect to win on this, because Party B knows that the Finance Bill has been constructed to fit the prejudices of … the Lib Dems. Meanwhile, the LibDems (like all Parties after May) are badly strapped for cash, cannot afford another General Election, but are not prepared to have their bluff called, to roll over, and act dumb.
Consequence: the LibDems find some way to put noses in the air, despair at the inter-Party sniping, and honourably turn up to abstain in person (as Frank Maguire famously did in 1979). Suddenly, instead of being a minority, Party A have an actual majority (even if only in single figures) in the lobbies.
That could be the way of the world, folks.