We are 9 days out from the election, people look at the opinion polls wanting to know who is going to win, who is going to form the next government. The simple answer is that at present they can’t tell us – we look set for a hung Parliament and who will form the government will depend to a certain extent upon negotiations between the parties, rather than the levels of support the parties receive.

Ironically the present electoral maths look set to give is an excellent illustration of the arguments used by both supporters of PR and its opponents. For PR’s supporters we look likely to get a hugely unproportional result – Labour could possibly end up with the most seats with the fewest votes, the Lib Dems in second place, but with under 100. For PR’s opponents, who argue that PR leads to governments being decided in secret discussions behind closed doors, we are heading into an election where measuring public opinion cannot tell us who will triumph – for that will depend upon the negotiations after the election.

If I can’t give you any polling evidence on what the result of a hung Parliament will be, I can at least offer guidance on what will happen! The way a hung Parliament plays out is guided by some key constitutional principles:

1) The prime minister remains the Prime Minister until he resigns. Even if he has lost his majority or is no longer the largest party, the PM remains PM until he resigns. It is his right, if he wishes, to wait until Parliament reassembles and to try and get approval for a Queen’s speech, even if he does not lead the largest party.

2) The Queen’s government must continue. When the Prime Minister resigns the Queen immediately invites someone else to replace him, in the knowledge that they will accept. The Palace will not allow there to be a period without government.

3) The Queen will not involve itself in anything that could be construed as being partisan, and does not personally involve herself in negotiations – though the Palace will closely follow the progress of negotiations.

4) Should the Prime Minister resign, the Queen will invite the person most capable of commanding a majority in the Commons (or at least, getting a Queen’s Speech and budget past the House). That will normally be the leader of the largest party, but it doesn’t have to be.

5) Should a Prime Minister loose a vote of confidence, or something regarded as a vote of confidence like the vote on the Queens Speech, they must resign or request a dissolution. A dissolution remains the personal power of the monarch, and she may refuse if the Parliament has only just been elected and there is a chance of an alternative government.

Putting all that into practice, this means that in a hung Parliament Gordon Brown will remain Prime Minister during negotiations. What that does not mean is Brown automatically getting first dibs at negotiations or arranging a coalition. Negotiations between the parties do not have a formal structure and are up to the parties themselves, if Nick Clegg wishes to play Labour and the Conservatives off against each other at the same time, or refuse to negotiate with Brown, or go straight to dealing with Cameron – he can.

If a coalition or pact commanding a majority in the House emerges, then one way or the other it will become the government, regardless of Brown being the sitting PM. If it is not a Labour led coalition then in theory it could come down to them waiting for Parliament to reassemble and forcing Brown out in a confidence vote, but in practice Brown would accept the inevitable and resign with dignity once it became clear that his position was not tenable.

The instance where Gordon Brown’s position as incumbent does make a difference is if there is no agreement to a coalition or a pact. As the sitting Prime Minister, Gordon Brown would then be the leader to go before Parliament and essentially dare them to vote down the Queen’s speech, leaving the other parties to consider whether it is in their strategic interests to vote the government out or bide their time and suffer it to continue for the time being.

If a party does end up without a majority, daring the Commons to vote them out, the threat they hold over the other parties is the that of a dissolution and a second election. The Queen does have the right to refuse such a dissolution under certain circumstances (basically if Parliament is still young and there is an alternative government that may be able to command a majority). Essentially, if Brown went before the Commons, lost a vote of confidence, and asked for a dissolution it would be refused, and David Cameron offered the chance to try and form a government instead. It’s less clear whether Cameron would be granted a dissolution if he in turn was defeated – in 1974 the opinion of the Palace was that they would have been very hard pressed to refuse Wilson had he requested one. I expect in practice Cameron would be granted one unless an alternate government with an agreed majority was obvious.

The final thing to consider are the rules of the political parties themselves, or two specific rules in particular. Firstly the Labour party – Nick Clegg has implied that one requirement for him to agree a deal with Labour would be a change of leader. In the Labour party’s rules, if they are in government and the leader becomes permanently unavailable, then the cabinet and NEC can pick one of the cabinet as leader until a full leadership contest can be arranged – in other words, if Brown resigned as Labour leader during coalition negotiations he could in theory be swiftly and easily replaced within the party rules.

The second issue is the Liberal Democrat party’s rules. Formally Cameron and Brown have a free hand in negotiations, Clegg does not. The Southport Resolution in the Lib Dem rules requires him to get the support of 75% of the Parliamentary Liberal Democrat party, and 75% of the party’s Federal executive (and failing that the support of two-thirds of the wider party) in order to enter into any agreement that “could affect the party’s independence of political action” – taken as meaning a coalition agreement. While all the leaders would in practice need to take their parties with them, only Clegg would have such a formal process to deal with somehow.

That’s the background – beyond that, all is speculation.

UPDATE: Thanks to Mark Pack for correcting me on the mysteries of the Lib Dem rule book. If Clegg did not get the 75% support from his Parliamentary party and executive, he’d then need two-thirds support of a special conference, and then failing that, of the wider party. On the other point that has been raised, outgoing Prime Ministers have in the past offered the monarch advice on who they should invite to succeed them, however, this is informal advice (“advice with a small a” in the terms the Palace would use) that the Queen may ignore, not the formal Advice from a minister to the monarch that the Queen is compelled to follow.

313 Responses to “What happens in a hung Parliament”

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  1. Interesting stuff!

    It seems unlikely that >25% LibDem MPs, many of whom will just have won their first election, would go against Clegg’s wishes in such a situation.

  2. Very Clear:

    Re: 4. My understanding is that Brown himself can advise the Queen to call on Clegg or Cameron next

    eg Lib Dems finish with high % of vote but 3rd in seats and Brown is ready to serve or lead his party into coalition with Clegg.

    Professor Robert “holding hands” Hazell has made it clear all the parties are well briefed and so is the cabinet office.

    GB£ had a bad day on FOREX today as market sentiment took on board the ever increasing liklihood of a hung Parliament.

    Personally, I still figure on a possibility of a blue/red coalition (not a probability)

  3. When would Parliament have to be recalled or could it in theory be left in limbo indefinitely?

  4. Anthony: you’ve not quite got the triple lock mechanism right (partly because it’s a quadruple lock really) – details are at http://www.markpack.org.uk/the-triple-lock-liberal-democrats-and-deals-with-other-parties/

  5. If Brown had the largest number of seats (not votes) in a hung parliament, and hung on for say a week after the election before a coalition (formal or otherwise) lined up against him and threatened to vote down his Queen’s Speech unless he resigned, would he be recorded in the history books as having won the election and then stepped down or as having lost the election? From an ego point of view I’m sure he doesn’t want to be remembered as never having won an election.

    Indeed, does the concept of “winning” the election have any meaning unless you get an overall majority?

  6. Probably most would remember him as having lost….as most will say Wilson “beat” Heath in Feb 74 . In that case , of course Lad had more seats than Con though… evn though no-one had a majority.

  7. It really is incredible that Labour are still well in the mix in this election.

    I know some people are saying their election footing has picked up, but the videos of the Elvis thing and now Peppa Pig are too of the most embaressing things I have ever seen in an election campaign.

    Elvis singing next to Brown ‘When nobody else undertsands me, and everything I do goes wrong’…..



    Its not as much the hung parliament scenario as that is already priced into the markets. It is more to do with Greece, staying alive!

  9. As others have suggested on this site, Brown has the look of a man who is already planning his retirement. I’m sure never winning an election will sting a bit, but (assuming the current polls hold up) he will get massive credit from his party for pulling Labour back from possible annihilation, and I’m sure spoiling DC’s party will give him the warm fuzzies. :)

  10. Jack,

    Surely the fall of the £ against the $ today, and the worldwide drop in share prices, is a result of the crisis in Greece, not the thoughts of a hung parliament.

  11. What next .. Frankie Valli and the Four seasons appearing singing “Let’s hang on” ?

  12. @Ash and Jack Jackson
    -Euro and Pound in flux after Merkel;s comments on campaign trail re her hesitancy to bail Greece out
    -The hung parliament scenario has been priced into tthe markets for a couple of weeks.
    -Markets always bet ahead of the curve

  13. Ash

    As I write GB£ is down 2% against Yen; 1% against US$ and a fraction down against the Euro which is off its lows yesterday against GB£.

    There is some short selling on the back of the hang

  14. Pinball666
    What next .. Frankie Valli and the Four seasons appearing singing “Let’s hang on” ?
    exactly, you couldn’t have made the Elvis thing up, even it was on Yes Minister.
    Maybe ‘Moneys too tight to mention’ by Simply Red, that would have been superb, especially if it was followed by a speech on the economy.

    Still, in all credit, as I said, they are somehow in the mix still.

  15. @Scotleag
    Yes, Spain is in the 2nd tier but it so happens it holds the EU presidency at the moment and, if you read the article, you will find the cold-shouldering relates to that. Other 2nd tier members have presided successfully.
    ZP being only three points behind in the polls says more about the low popularity of Rajoy and it is hard to find anyone saying anything good about him. Some even yearn the return of Felipe Gonzalez

  16. I know I’ve posted this before but for those interested there’s an report on the British experience of hung Parliaments here:

    w w w.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-04951.pdf

    Putting the W’s back together. It’s prepared by the Commons Library, so presumably it’s the powers that be are reading as well. Lots of the history of minority govs plus latest constitutional advice (which basically boils down to HM telling everyone to sort it out between themselves).

  17. On a different subject. I’m wondering if the Greek financial crisis may start having some impact on the election. Today, Greek bonds were reduced to junk status and world stock markets plunged. If this becomes a prominent news story, it is unlikely to be positive for strong Europhiles so may start influencing softer LibDem supporters back to the Tories.

    Until today I’d have said the the Greek problems were in the “boring but important” bag and would have no influence on our election, but the stakes have been raised substantially in the last 48 hours.

  18. Who would really have a mandate to rule on their own if the current poll of polls turns out right and the Tories ‘win’ with a smaller share of the vote than they had in 2005?

  19. Canada has had plenty of “hung Parliaments” – though we call them minority governments. You’ll find so far not a single case of any “coalition governments” in those cases. In every single case, the minority government essentially worked with other opposition parties on a case-by-case, issue-by issue basis.

    (Or, as in the case of our current Conservative minority government, they don’t work with other parties, but essentially dare them to vote down the government if they dont like what they’re proposing).

  20. @Theresa

    The Friday after the first debate you could get 6/4 against the hung Parliament.

    GB£ is trading at $1.5280 which is still above where it has been for the last month.

    I am reporting from 2 very heavy circs from major banks received today.

  21. 3 main reasons market moving towards Treasuries and $ today

    (1) Greece
    (2) Us Senate having another vote on financial regulation bill today
    (3) IMPORTANT–bi-partisan meeting of the Deficit Reduction Commission at the White House today

  22. The place where the most precedence has been set as to what happens in a hung parliament is from Canada. Canada has had 9 hung parliaments out of the last 18 elections.

    Canada is also the only other Westminster parliament with first past the post elections out there.

    We have also had some provincial hung parliaments and one instance where the largest party, an existing government that lost their majority in an election, was replaced by an informal coalition of the 2nd and 3rd largest parties.

    In all the hung parliaments in Canada, no two parties have ever created a coalition and form government. There was a push to do that at the end of 2008 but the public strongly rebelled against the idea.

    Canada has been operating under a hung parliament since the middle of 2004.

  23. Sorry that should be “it’s what MP’s and the Powers that Be . . “

  24. First of all I dont think there will be a hung parliament. I think there will be a small tory majority (10-20) as a result of the tory surge which will almost certainly occur by this time next week (and I’m a Labour supporter).

    In the event of a hung parliament Brown is entitled to stay PM until he is defeated in a vote of confidence (which he probably wont do)

    Clegg could keep Labour in power on condition there was a new Labour leader.That wont happen either because it would mean that we would ahve a PM who didnt take part in the debates.

    Clegg could support a Cameron government and the tories would play the Liberals along until he won a second election after which he would dump them.

    Clegg’s best bet would be to support Brown -but that would harm him too because he would be seen propping up a leader who had lost. The voters wouldnt like that .

    As a Labour supporter I think if Labour doesnt win (which it wont) it should have nothing to do with the Liberals, go into opposition, elect David Milliband leader and win the next election which would take place within 2 years.

  25. I hate to say this but even though I am not averse to the idea of a hung Parliament in principle, it will probably carry a heavy financial cost.

    Yes the markets do bet ahead of the curve but does anyone actually know what is ahead yet, much of the betting against our country has yet to occur but will start in earnest if things aren’t very clear very quickly as to how the deficit will be resolved.

    Most likely scenario is a high inflation, high mortgage rate economy with a visit from the IMF.


    1. When a Prime Minister resigns, the Queen asks him as his last act to ADVISE HER of who could form the next Government. It is not at this point her “choice”. Should Brown be defeated, Brown COULD advise Clegg or anyone else.

    2. The Prime Minister CANNOT go before the Commons if he has lost his own seat.

    3. You, like almost everyone else, are failing to consider the possibility of someone other than the Liberals holding the balance of power. Consider this forinstance… I lived next door to Alex Salmond at St Salvator’s Hall at University of St Andrews in the 1980’s. Believe me, it is very conceptually possible that a deal could be made between the Tories and the SNP. Alex Salmond being PM of independent Scotland and a virtually certain permanent Tory Government in the rest would suit both parties and I have long heard rumour of this so-called secret protocol.

  27. -Is it true that today NC said he would for a coalition govt with Lab if GB wasn’t Prime Minister

    Hung parliament has been priced into the market already as I said before. You can carry on believing that all of a sudden the chance of hung parliament increased so much over night that the market (UK and US) dipped so much.

  29. Reds will be able to form a government without yellow. :)

  30. -US Senate raking Goldman Sachs over the proverbial coals in their committee hearing right now
    -US traders scared Senate regulations are going to be unbalanced and hurt US financials

  31. No one seems to be talking about a Clegg led government. There’s been lots of talk about a progressive coalition. If the Lib-Dems come second in vote-share, but third in seats, there is the possibility that Labour might offer to support a Clegg led coalition. In effect Clegg would be PM and Labour would be in a coaliton with the Lib-Dems.

    As I understand it Clegg has not ruled out working with a Brown lead Labour Party, he has only ruled out supporting a Brown Prime Ministership. In theory then Brown, as leader of the Labour Party, could offer a coalition with the Lib-Dems with Clegg as PM. Brown could then be leader of the Labour Party and retain a cabinet post if he so wished, but probably not chancellor. Even if this happened I think Brown would probably not ask for a cabinet post and would be replaced as Labour leader quite swiftly.

    But ther is nothing to stop Labour joining a Lib-Dem lead coalition, especially if the Lib-Dems have the moral authority of more actual popular support than Labour.

  32. A Hung Parliament is a rare occurence that happens. In the last century, only FIVE results resulted in a Hung Parliament. The two 1910s, 1923, 1929 and 1974 Feb. Under PR, we would continuously have a Hung Parliament. Majority governments are perfectly stable and I think that the real reason for such over enthusiastic response for a Hung Parliament, is because many voters are fed up with politicians from all sides.

  33. So Nick Clegg is in favour of the UK getting a Labour prime minister who wasnt in the debates? That sounds like a trap to me and Labour would be mad to fall into it.

    If Labour doesnt win I think it should tell the Liberals to get lost, elect Milliband as soon as possible and get ready for an another election.

  34. Despite what anybody says, a hung parliament will be poor for this Country, FACT. Despite all the other major points of a hung parliament such as difficulty getting policy through, it will result in a 2nd election at some point, and we all know the huge cost of elections to the Country.

    As a Conservative supportor, I can honestly say I would actually rather have a Labour majority govt than this (all though I doubt that most labour supporters would say the same, as they seem slightly more bitter towards the Tories than vice versa!)

  35. -Merkel’s comments on the campaign trail spooked everyone

  36. Kyle,

    Good to see you posting.

    I have said before that a referenda on PR would most likely fail.

    In Ireland were referenda are common, they fail regularly when a mobilised minority oppose them. 40% of country would sure represent a sizeable minority.

  37. @anyboby,

    any noise on twitter about tonight’s polls?


  38. An extraordinary PPB by the Conservatives. If I didn’t get irony and sarcasm, I might think they had just overtly promised

    We are the hung parliament party
    to paralyse the UK economy
    behind closed doors politics
    to waste tens of millions of pounds
    economic stagnation

    And then said at the end
    A vote for any party other than the conservatives would do the job.

    No doubt they believe everyone listens closely and understands irony, but I’m amazed they could consider using such phrases at this stage.

    Irony never works IMHO.

  39. ASH

    I have been very surprised at how GB£ has actually risen in the past 2 weeks as a hung Parliament became a probability with each successive poll after the first debate.

    GBP actually rose yesterday. The sell off began at 8 am this morning and I am agreed a lot of it is a flight to safety with the Yen appreciating against the US$ and sterling caught in the cross exchange a pattern that we have seen over the last 18 months.

    I hope you are right that it is priced in a year ago GB£ was recovering from $1.468, about a month ago it revisited below $1.48 and has retraced steadily over the past month, I can not see any sign of a hung Parliament/UK crisis being priced in.

  40. “Under PR we would have a permanently hung parliament”

    If we had the alternative vote which Labour favours you would get majority government. Voting reform doesnt necessarily mean PR.

  41. I don’t know if there has been any recent polling of late, but I heared a little while back that the public were in favour of PR.

    On a second note, I think that is a must see once or if you’re lukcy twice or if it is a miracle, thrice in a lifetime event. It would be very interesting to see the outcome of such an event.

  42. -which polls are due out tonight
    -what time are they released

  43. The tories oppose voting reform because there is an almost permanant centre left majority in this country.

    Every election since 1935 has seen a majority of people vote for centre left parties/policies. It would be the end of the tory party as we know it.

    As a Labour supporter I oppose PR which would give the party that always come last -and will come last-the Liberals the whip hand. But the Alternative Vote would be more democratic and would allow majority government.

  44. Alun

    Exactly – what Clegg is angling for if the Lib dems come second (or 1st) in the popular vote is for Clegg to be PM.

    He just dare not say it explicitly.

    Hence “I will not support GB carrying on as PM if he is third in the popular vote” but simultaneously “I will work with anyone who will agree to enough of our preferred programme, most particularly electoral reform”

    It is pretty arrogant for Labour supporters to think their man must be PM even if Labour is the junior partner in the deal s far as the people are concerned…

    Of course this is all second guessing the result, and therefore unwise!


  45. @ Greengrass “Other 2nd tier members have presided successfully.”

    And some first tier ones disastrously. It’s not that long ago since the Uk was more or less in a permanent minority of one – a situation which could recur under a PM Cameron

    “ZP being only three points behind in the polls says more about the low popularity of Rajoy and it is hard to find anyone saying anything good about him. Some even yearn the return of Felipe Gonzalez”

    Last point first. A common feature in any country after a leader has been gone for a while.

    Certainly there are comparisons between Zapatero & Rajoy and Brown & Cameron in that you would expect the opposition to be surging ahead. Rajoy also has the added weight of regional PP corruption to deal with. In the UK he would have been gone long ago, after his first election defeat, let alone the second.

    But to call the PM who legalised gay marriage in a catholic country, introduced the law of historical memory and stood up to Bush by bringing Spanish troops back from Iraq ‘lightweight’ doesn’t really ring true. IMHO we could have done with such a ‘lightweight’ in the UK on that last point.

  46. @Richard O,

    Little clues from Andrew HAwkins at ComRes. He normally leaves a one liner to keep us guessing but it is all very prim and proper…

    Given that Comres are just feeding another 500 into their previosu day’s production one can expect very little change.

    Except to say that any change eg. a +1 could in reality work out as a +2 the following day should the follow up sample confirm the trend in the 500.

    But given that we are talking about 500s One has to worry.

  47. Jack Jackson – If I have to say this again I think i’ll scream.

    The market didn’t give a hoopla about a hung parliament, it reacted to the Greece situation and the news that Portugal could well be joining in.
    For God’s sake, can we leave this one now? Have a look at charts and trends and tell me WHY ON EARTH today would have been any different to any other day when the polls told us a hung parliament was likely?

  48. -Is ComRes the 3 day rolling poll

  49. @Sue,

    I disagree a litte (sorry!!!).

    The £ would almost certainly rise if the Conservatives were on course for, or got a majority.

    Not a partisan comment, just something I strongly believe. The reasoning is that they expect the Tories to be harsher in terms of paying off the UK deficit, thus ensuring little or no chance of credit rating downgrade.


  50. “-Merkel’s comments on the campaign trail spooked everyone”

    Greece rerated to junk bond status

    Portugal rerated-down two notches.

    That’s what spooke the market.

    If the German taxpayer refuses to fund better Greek state pensions than German ones, the contagion will spread.

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