Ex No 10 Insider: The road to hell and a hung Parliament

Don't assume the December election will settle Brexit, or the economic future of the country.

Last Updated: 13 Nov 2019

Multiple elections in a short space of time, a minority prime minister who can’t pass votes in Parliament, surging secessionist movements, the rapid shift from a two-party, take-it-in-turns system to one requiring hotchpotch coalitions to govern, often involving populist parties that didn’t even exist a decade ago… no, I’m not talking about Brexit Britain, but Spain, where a second election this year has scattered the legislative field and shaken the country’s ability to govern itself.

The UK and Spain have different voting systems, but they share the fragmentation of political debate and, if the Conservatives can’t win an outright majority in the December 12 general election, a leader who misjudged his popular appeal.

The Tories have a fairly commanding lead in the polls, with the average showing them around 10 points ahead of Labour, a figure that may well increase now that the Brexit Party has stood down in Conservative-held seats. 

A lot can change in the next four weeks, but even if their lead holds, the Tories are unlikely to benefit as much as their vote share would indicate. They face a serious threat defending Remain-leaning seats in the south, and a mountain to climb in converting leave-voting Labour strongholds in the north and midlands to switch sides, especially as Nigel Farage is still contesting those seats. 

While the odds still favour a Tory majority, it’s perfectly possible that this election could worsen the deadlock in parliament. 

With Ruth Davidson gone, the SNP could reach their 2015 heights (56), and with a hard Remain/soft Tory platform, the Liberals might match their 2010 return (57) - both at the expense of the Conservatives. And while the Conservatives could make gains from Labour in leave-backing marginals - leaving Corbyn with fewer MPs than he had before the 2017 election - it may not be enough to govern outright. 

The end result could be a scenario where no party is able to form a government, but also crucially where no combination of parties is willing to form a coalition. 

Who would prop up the Tories? Jo Swinson has engineered the Lib Dems’ recovery on a position fundamentally opposed to Johnson’s signature policy, and will not have forgotten Nick Clegg’s punishment after five years of coalition. 

The Brexit Party won’t have enough seats, if any. Even the DUP - who face serious electoral challenges of their own - can’t be relied on, now that Johnson has danced across their red lines with his new Brexit deal.

That leaves only the SNP, who, frankly, have built their dominant position in Scotland on kicking the Westminster Tories and everything they stand for. The only thing that could possibly win them round is a promise of another independence referendum, which even Boris Johnson would struggle to dress up and sell to his own party.

It’s doubtful that Labour could find the numbers to lead a coalition government, but if they did it would almost certainly require support from both the Liberals and the SNP. 

The only carrots Corbyn could offer them would be referendums, of the People’s Vote and indyref2 varieties respectively, and in each case their support would be highly conditional and strictly time-limited. The shadow cabinet won’t be holding its breath in any case.

That leaves a scenario where no government is able to command a majority in the House. We know what that looks like, having experienced it for the last few months. Fresh elections would almost certainly be needed, leaving the Crown and the civil service to sort out the mess of the impending Brexit deadline of 31 January. Rather like in 2010, the cabinet secretary - now Sir Mark Sedwill - would likely come to the fore. 

The result would be a rather unwelcome Christmas present for all concerned - that rather than getting Brexit done or cancelling Brexit or renegotiating it and putting it to a vote, nothing gets done at all, and the absurd theatre of British politics drags on.

Image credit: Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


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