Hung Parliaments are so 2010

Imagine the scene. It’s 5 minutes to 10pm on the 8th June and the Prime Minister is at her home in Maidenhead with her advisors, waiting for the exit poll. The polls had be narrowing over the last few weeks of the campaign – still showing May ahead, but not by as comfortable as margin as she had expected at the outset. The clock strikes ten, Big Ben rings out and David Dimbleby appears on screen to reveal the numbers. The unthinkable has happened. Theresa May is the leader of the largest party, but in a hung parliament. Her ears are ringing and she can’t hear a word her team says to her as she quickly processes the numbers. The gamble hasn’t paid off – she’s short of a majority by 10.

Could this happen? Many, such as polling expert Matt Singh, argue that the fundamentals of the election haven’t changed. Regardless of what the voting intention bit of the polls might say, May’s lead over Jeremy Corbyn on the economy and leadership is still so substantial that it’s hard to see how she can lose. However, Friday’s YouGov poll for The Times has become the first of the campaign to suggest that, if it proved correct on a universal swing, a hung parliament would be the result. According to the Spectator, it is now “the floor” (or worst case scenario) in CCHQ’s model for the first time this year. It might not be the most likely outcome, but amidst the speculation it bares taking five minutes to think about what it might actually mean.

UK Polling Report projection of Friday’s YouGov poll

In retrospect, the ‘five days in May’ after the 2010 election were straightforward. From the moment David Cameron made his “big, open and comprehensive offer” to the Liberal Democrats it was clear that Nick Clegg was the Kingmaker. He had the numbers to put Cameron in Downing Street. Gordon Brown believed Clegg’s support could keep him there too. The Coalition we ended up with was, against the odds, remarkably stable.

The same isn’t true this time around. Cameron’s coalition killed the Lib Dems. They are likely to end up with around 5 seats after the votes are counted. The mantle of the UK’s third party has been taken up by the SNP, which has little interest in governing for the long term interests of the Union. So in the scenario above, where the Conservatives are about 10 seats short of a majority, where would the ability to govern come from?

The answer is unclear. Technically, a party needs 326 seats to have won a majority. In reality that number is smaller. The speaker and his deputies are removed from the calculation. Sinn Fein won four seats in 2015 but traditionally refuse to take them up, thus also reducing the threshold for a majority Government. On polls like Friday’s in the Times, this might be enough to put May just over the line but her majority would be vanishingly small. The Government could be held to ransom by rebellious backbenchers and any by-election defeats could spell disaster. Theresa May would go into the new Parliament in the same dangerous position that John Major found himself in at the end of his seven years as Prime Minister.

Where else could May draw support from? The small number of remaining Liberal Democrats would be unlikely to support the Conservatives again and would anyway require major concessions on the EU to do so. The SNP is out – the threat of an independence referendum alone makes that certain. Much like John Major, May would be left needing to go looking for help from an unlikely source: the two Unionist parties in Northern Ireland. The DUP and UUP might have 10 MPs between them and are natural allies of the Conservatives. The political situation in Northern Ireland is tenuous though. What price these two parties might exact from the Conservatives is unknown and such support would be tenuous at best.

What of Labour’s prospects? On these numbers, there is little Corbyn could do. Even if possible, many would object to an alliance with the SNP on pro-union grounds. Even if Corbyn did join forces with Sturgeon, they would likely need the support of some of the minor parties too. If a ‘rainbow coalition’ was mathematically viable, it’s longevity would seriously be in doubt.

We are therefore left with the very real prospect that Britain could well prove ungovernable. More than any election in living memory, a hung parliament would likely lead to a second election later this year. With the Brexit clock ticking and continuing pressure on the economy and public services, this is a far less than optimal outcome. The responsibility is on both Labour and the Conservatives to try and secure a better result – for Corby this has to mean substantial gains in seats than on current projection. If neither leader can secure the support of the public, we may all find ourselves back at the ballot box sooner than we think.

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