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. I’m calling it Con 39, Lab 28, Lib 29 so far. LD seem to be slipping very gradually away from a 30 average and Lab seem to be gaining slightly. Will they meet in the middle? Can Nick Clegg give his party the boost they need to stay ahead of Labour or will they slip back to third?

    A simple linear trend prediction based on Post Lib Dem surge figures from the 17th onwards suggest Con climbing to 37 by election day and Lib Dem just pipping Labour to 2nd place at 27. Of course there’s plenty of time for “events” between now and then.

  2. Sue – agreed on most of that but we here just groaned at Snow – but we do that whenever a journo tries to get his ‘gaffe’ out of a leader.

    As you know, it’s the press I have it in for. I counted 5 minutes on that nonsense when a more in-depth appraisal of the IFS report would have served the C$ viewer better.

  3. @Sue – no, but a reliable source on another site indicates it’s MOE from yesterdays.

  4. @andrew holden

    “They also have Angus Reid as joint favourites !
    And they don’t usually provide very good reading for Labour !”

    classic bookie spread mentality i.e. take the pollster considered most labour friendly and the one considered least friendly (and usually at opposite ends of the tracker average).

  5. The final debate is going to be a decider in terms of how peope vote I feel, and was always going to be so.

    ITV has always been about fluff, lightweight, dancing on ice and escape from the jungle stuff, everybody knows that, Sky very small viewing figures in comparison, BBC is seen still as a serious broadcaster whether or not you believe that.

    BBC debate day after tomorrow could prove decisive. will be fascinating to see the outcome.

  6. Sue Marsh
    Re Posters – Brighton Pav is a Christmas tree of Green and Red. You’d be forgiven fro thinking it was a two way fight, but in fact the Tories hope (hoped?) to win it.
    My sister-in-law’s road is literally 50% “postered” with an even Lab/Green split.
    Terribly exciting.
    By the Way, do we actually have ComRes yet?
    On betfair, the odds have moved totally odds on for Green to win Brighton Pavilion.

  7. @ Howard

    There is much more support for some mild electoral reform in the Conservative party than is officially shown. Most of the negativity is towards LibDem STV and Brown’s “Road to Damascus” support for AV. Conservatives don’t like tinkering, especially if it produces messy results. But mild slight adjustments in the light of experience (eg how silly pure FPTP now looks after this campaign) could well give consideration to an element of change as I have outlined on previous posts.

  8. EOIN said In politics, momentum is everything.
    .. And timing?

  9. Interesting – I just WISH it wasn’t Dimbleby.
    I wonder if he’ll try any Boulton tricks (Telegraph)
    Don’t know if I’m alone, but I can’t BEAR him and although I usually accept bias happens to ALL sides, he makes me spit.

  10. @interesting
    A number of posters have suggested that the Thursday debate will be crucial. Just to put the other side of the arguement, I am wondering if interest in the election is now past its peak and the general public are more in the mood for planning for the bank holiday.
    Perhaps the BBC debate may get lower viewing figures than ITV’s?
    Maybe things will drift for a few days.

  11. Richard O – We’ve all been talking about how the pollsters/pundits could get it horribly wrong this time and I agree. I think each seat will come down to how it is fought and local considerations.
    Pav certainly FEELS incredibly close. I wouldn’t want to put money on any outcome at the moment.

  12. @All

    For those who use the PoliticsHome chart for the regions for the last weeks polls. The NE region seems to be showing an error . The Change for Con should read -3 not 0.
    The GE figure was 23. With alevel of 20 that is a fall of 3%

  13. Richard O – Re Pav (again)
    Funny really, considering the centre-left vote is split THREE ways here, you’d think the Tories would storm it.

  14. I personally think that although the BBC debate may have some impact, it will pale in comparison with the first debate, which was a game changer.

    I don’t think there are any blows left to throw – the current shift in the Tory focus to attack the Libdems and hung parliament is more likely to have an impact, IMO.

  15. Hi sue, I have to say, I would really like to see some Green representation at the debate on Thursday. I personally don’t mind Dimbleby so much :)

    I don’t think the moderators should use those partisan tricks, it seems so obvious!

  16. @SUE


    what – in front of the telly and on the carpet ???

  17. @Parag

    You would think/hope so but around 15m will watch Thurs debate. XFactor decides the next 5+ years of UK PLC.

  18. FrankG – hope you saw my posts earlier re Joe and partisanship.

  19. @Pam F

    Harder to manage but yes…..

  20. Ian Kemp – Yep, my hubby has put down a tarp

  21. @ SUE

    ‘Yep, my hubby has put down a tarp’

    I won’t be round for tea !!

  22. @SueMarsh
    “I just WISH it wasn’t Dimbleby.”

    I like him (- and he’s pretty fluent in Italian too!). Think he will do a good job.

  23. Hi Parag,

    I’ve always thought the BBC debate would be taken the most seriously by those watching, in terms of those watching we could all only guess. As I just mentioned I feel ITV is seen as lightweight not to be taken seriously, BBC is completely different, Sky doesn’t even come into iy, C4 shouldhave got that second debate.

    Locally, I know a lot of “old Labour” who will not be voting.

  24. @ Sue Marsh
    FrankG – hope you saw my posts earlier re Joe and partisanship

    Er No – when did you send it. Been double checking Region Poll on PoliticsHome for accuracy and putting in my predictions for seat gains and losses.

  25. It is still not clear to me whether a ‘decision’ by NC, in the event of a hung parliament, either to go with the party who have ‘the largest vote’ or ‘the largest number of seats’ is actually in the gift of Mr. Clegg. This should be spelled out in a democracy. I refuse to let my ‘free vote’ – so hard-won by Mrs. Pankhurst and others – to be in the gift of any one man. I am really concerned that our party allegiance and democratic rights are being eroded by so many other messages which create a climate and a mind-set they don’t actually deserve. I don’t want a hung parliament; I think it would be very bad for this country at this time and I have not much respect for Mr. Clegg’s power-mongering o rlabour’s fawning.

  26. @Parag

    “You would think/hope so but around 15m will watch Thurs debate. XFactor decides the next 5+ years of UK PLC.”

    I doubt it, whenit’s up against Cori on one side and football on the other.
    My guess is viewers will peak at around 9m at just after 9pm, but average around 7m.

    But as we have seen, it’s the broadcasters’ potrayal afterwards that is more important.

  27. Sue…………Tell me this isn’t you……….Bolly bottle on lap, fag in tray, tarp covered in spit, giggling hysterically as polls bounce backward and forward……….please ! :-)

  28. Beverly – Absolutely!

  29. John Brown

    “…. i predict a Con 40, Lab 24, Lib 26. I have no data to offer… ”

    So why are you here?

  30. Ken – Sorry, that’ll be about the size of it. No fag though.

  31. @solar
    As a Lab supporter I know that a lot of hope is riding on this one. But all sides will be well prepared. I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed for GB then ;-)
    Though about the old Labour non voters, is it the economy then? I posted this morning stating all the prev Lab supporters I know were holding firm

  32. Can’t find them either, but the gist was, he was asking whether to vote Lib or Lab not Lib or Con – as a labour supporter who is currently very cross with Clegg, I advised him to do what he has always done and vote Lib.
    I think maybe you misread the post.

  33. Who’s Joe Sue (Joe Marsh?)

    I know one thing about Brighton Pav and that is that the returningofficer will not decide the winner by the most posters displayed. An earlier poster here mentioned hardly any blue posters in one place. The Torties are clued up now and don’t need them as ra ra with knock up – all by phone and don’t forget that those shy Tories are not shy to their own office. They are all tabbed (round our way many have already voted). That still leaves the floaters about whom they are as in the dark as anyone else.i

  34. Quite right Howard, I was simply commenting to others who’d said they hadn’t seen any and they were a thing of the past.

    “Joe” posted earlier as he lives in a Con/Lib marginal but was a Lab supporter. He’d always voted Lib tactically but was worried about Clegg’s comments about not supporting Brown. He didn’t want to “Let the Tories in” by voting Lib (his words)

  35. @ Parag

    “Though about the old Labour non voters, is it the economy then? I posted this morning stating all the prev Lab supporters I know were holding firm”

    From those i’ve spoke to, they are “oldLabour” they don’t like a few things, alliance with US, appeasement of bankers, etc…. this is a fairly safe Labour area….there seems to have been a point where they have just snapped. they aren’t willing to follow Polly Toynbee’s advice and put on nose pegs. Lab support will drop here in the North.

  36. @ Sue Marsh
    Still not found, was it in this thread?

    Probably lots of “Pots and Kettles” or even “Do as I say and not as I do”

    Smiley – really must learn how to do smileys properly like the rest of you! Back to seat predictions.

  37. @ Sue Marsh

    “I just WISH it wasn’t Dimbleby”

    You know he was in the Bullingdon Club and he does tend to betray his leanings on question time ?!

  38. FrankG – : + ) = :)

    ; + ) = ;)

    : + ( = :(

  39. Mike P – Thought I was the only one who noticed.

  40. @ FrankG

    Smileys – I wondered about this for ages too, then realised that if you type a colon or semi-colon followed by a closing bracket, the site translates it for you, like this :)

    hope that worked ;)

  41. J-P @DAVE

    “I’m a Lib Dem, and ….we’re a generic protest vote to a lot of people, people who would almost certainly choose a different one if it had a chance of getting them representation. ”

    If you think that’s true of the LibDems just compare the SNP vote with the pro-Independence polling.

    The SNP, in government, gets support, and Labour, now on their fifth leader in twelve years each one less successful than the last isadvantageous, but they aren’t winning support for their flagship policy.

    “Generic protest vote” sums it up. The electorate is USING the SNP pour encourager les autres, not SUPPORTING it, and it works very well from the voter’s point of view.. They seem to have the edge on the LibDems right now as best buy for the Anti-Con/Lab vote.

    It could become habitual if we continue with FPTP, or don’t get what needs to go along with it.

    Nothing Alex Salmond has ever done has much improved his party’s position. That has been the responsibility of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

    Without them, the SNP would be where the Greens are today.

  42. I ‘ve been reading that Labour raised about £1m in week 1 and about £1.5m but I’ve been racking my head as to where the money is being spent. I dont know if that Elvis impersonator cost that much?

    I think that Ken Livingstone suggested that they were bringing the real Elvis as a celebrity backer next week.

    But I now sussed it -They are hoarding the money for the second election later this year!
    Wow, how they’ve been wrongfooting the opposion-the planning of this campaign is just streets ahead of anything i’ve seen before ! Come October NC and DC on posters all over the nation ,we brought you the double dip please vote for us again!

  43. @ JOHN P DICK

    ‘Nothing Alex Salmond has ever done has much improved his party’s position. That has been the responsibility of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.’

    Can’t agree there John – think AS has done a lot to improve the SNP’s attractiveness although there is now a degree of slippage. Voted SNP at the last Holyrood election because of his appeal – and like you I’m a Lib (lifelong)

  44. @Beverly

    You said “…I refuse to let my ‘free vote’ – so hard-won by Mrs. Pankhurst and others – to be in the gift of any one man…”

    Your vote is in the gift of no-one. You are free to vote for anybody standing in your constituency for that seat in half of the UK legislature – NOT the UK Government. At that point your involvment ends. Your vote and those of millions of others will be translated into ~650 MPS and they – not you nor me nor anyone else – will decide who forms the UK Government.

    Because of quirks in FPTP and population movements, the proportion of MPs will not reflect the proportion of votes cast. In certain circumstances, the proportion will be so different that a party with fewer votes will have more seats, or the party with the third greatest number of votes will have the largest number of seats. This leads me to question whether the UK is, in fact, a democracy.

  45. @Beverly

    You said “…I am really concerned that our party allegiance and democratic rights are being eroded by so many other messages…”

    Your party allegiance is your own affair and will not be eroded regardless of election outcome.

    Your sole current democratic right is to vote unencumbered in privacy for a named individual for a named constituency and to have that vote counted uncorruptly. Arguably your democratic right would be eroded should a closed-list PR system be adopted, but there are systems (STV, open-list PR) that would not. FPTP is not the only system in which your democratic rights would be the same and there are several others in which they would be greater.

  46. @Beverly

    You said “…I don’t want a hung parliament; I think it would be very bad for this country at this time and I have not much respect for Mr. Clegg’s power-mongering…”

    Neither you nor I can invoke nor prevent a hung parliament: that is not one of your or my democratic rights and – short of electing you dictator – I can’t think of any system that would give you that power.

    Your characterisation of Clegg as “powermongering” is puzzling. He (and the other leaders) seek to shape the next UK Government and so wield power. Do you genuinely think that Cameron, Brown, Pearson, Griffin et al are *not* seeking power?

  47. Richard O @George and others

    The phenomenon was noted in respect of UNPOPLAR (i.e. unfashionable) right wing parties.

    When CONS seemed to be heading for a majority they couldn’t be said to be unpopular (except of course in Scotland) but Labour were.

    Maybe there won’t be so many shy voters this time (except in Scotland where the SNP vigilantes hunt Tories with foxes at night).

  48. @ JOHN B DICK

    I would rather the Cons won the argument in a FPTP election than weaselled themselves into some coalition.

    Again, in my view, a general election is about producing a government, not a fudge.

  49. So that means Labour could lose the election in terms of popular vote and seats, Brown could remain as PM because nobody else could take over and then we have another election in a few months.

    Would that count as a 4th Labour term?

  50. Howard

    “Bless the late Robin Cook ……”

    and Donald Dewar to whom I complained about the abuses of Westminster when we were at school together 1956-1958. His answer (on PR, among other things) was …

    “It’s not as bad as you say ….
    There are historical reasons why it is so ……
    There are a number of possible solutions ….

    He had all the answers then, and worked on the project for another 40 years when it was scrutinised by the Convention, voted for overwhelmingly by the electorate and accepted by Tony Blair who many (from all parts of the political spectrum) think may not have fully understood the consequences.

    If you want the reform of Westminster, the Scottish Parliament has been provided for you as a model. That, and not just the better governance of Scotland, is what it is for.

    Maybe that’s even its main purpose.

    No need to look further; just copy it in the more than 30 significant ways it differs from Westminster practice.

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