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. @ Gareth

    I think the word ‘term’ refers to a full parliamentary term of several years rather than a school term of several weeks. Mind you with coalitions in places such as Italy, some didn’t last that long! :)

    @Sue Marsh and MikeP

    Thanks, did that work, it doesn’t show at this end?


  2. @Sue Marsh and Mike P

    Does show now …. pretty….yippee!

    Off to bed


  3. Clegg could form a coalition with Labour if Brown was not PM… I’d love to know what’s going through the minds of senior Labour ministers right now…

  4. Robert Corbishley @ JOHN B DICK

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

    Well, any believer would say that, and if they chose not to participate , as the Lawers say “that would be a matter for them.” Scottish Conservatives, under the most widely respected leader in the Scottish parliament since Donald Dewar take a more mature view and are thriving on it while the LibDems, whose self image is/was that they are the Grand Masters of coalition politics are floundering.

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

    That’s been answered above. If you want “strong government” you need a dictator.

    If you want an English gentleman’s club presenting puerile artificial conflict by two Oxbridge debating teams in a building built like a mediaeval cathedral designed for antiphonal singing, with the opposing leaders sitting two sword’s length’s apart (though the storage for their swords is provided elsewhere and they may not brin them into the chamber), and strange rituals involving men in tights and inscribing the outcome of deliberations with a steel pen on calf vellum, then really there is nothing anywhere in the world to come anywhere near the “Mother of Parliaments”

    If you want a modern parliament, designed for purpose after the examination of other countries experience with its procedures, standards and values based on the Founding Principles of openness, accountability, the sharing of power and equal opportunities and in which a third of the members (formerly 40%) sit down to pee, then there is a PR minority and coalition parliament you can use as a model.

    Donald told me about it more than half a century ago and in relation to principles he said ” .. .. and what’s more, it would have a means of ensuring that it kept to them.”

    It does.

    The SP has only the four founding principles, but that’s four more than can be found anywhere at Westminster.

  5. Clegg never said he wouldn’t go with labour if brown was leader and labour came in third.

    All he said was it would be odd.

    The guardian spun this to hurt Clegg and bring labour voters back home and it worked. Labour has gone up in the last few days and Clegg back down.

    The guardian is a powerhouse for Labour.

  6. @Kyle Downing
    “Majority governments are perfectly stable”

    But they are not democratic. There is absolutely no way that Labour winning 55% of the seats in Parliament on a 36% vote-share, while the Lib-Dems win 9% of the seats in parliament on a 22% vote-share, can be considered democratic. It takes 94,000 votes to elect a single Lib-Dem MP, 44000 votes to elect a Tory, and 26,000 votes to elect a Labour MP. That is massive disenfranchisement of a lareg proportion of the population. It is unacceptable and undemocratic.


    “So Nick Clegg is in favour of the UK getting a Labour prime minister who wasnt in the debates?”

    Clegg said no such thing, you are making a straw man argument. Look at what he said, he said he would not support a Brown Prime Ministership. that is not the same as saying he would support another Labour politician as PM.

    Richard O
    “Despite what anybody says, a hung parliament will be poor for this Country, FACT.”

    Writing it in CAPITALS does not make it true. It is not a fact at all, it is merely speculation on your part. Here in Finland (I am British but have lived here for eleven years) we have PR and all our governments are coalitions. I would say we are much better run than the UK.

    “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.”

    Why would there be difficulty in passing legislation? I don’t see this, if there were a properly negotiated coalition then policy would be a matter for the coalition government, and the MPs of those parties forming the coalition would be expected to support the government. Besides I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it is difficult to pass legislation, single party government has given us reams and reams of very poor legislation that can be passed on a loyalist party vote and is never scrutinized. And what do you mean a second election at some point? We have elections regularly, this is not the first we have had you know. It’s called democracy.

    “As a Conservative supportor, I can honestly say I would actually rather have a Labour majority govt than this”

    I want a coalition government, I want PR, I want proper democracy and for every person’s vote to count equally. I never want to see single party government ever again, it’s undemocratic and disenfranchises millions of voters. This Tory/Labour duopoly is bad for the country and bad for democracy. Most votes are wasted, with only a few thousand people in a few tens of marginal constituencies having any proper say in the outcome. We need electoral reform more urgently than anything.

  7. Have coalition local councils worked well? Perhapse someone could give us some hard facts.

  8. I agree with everything ALUN has said above – haven’t time to participate here but in essence, changing the voting system (preferably to STV similar to that used in Ireland) is the single biggest issue for this and any other election bar none, until it is secured.

    Once it is in place we can move on to the really important stuff

  9. I said months ago that the Conservatives would win with an overall majority from 20 – 40 seats. After today’s events I am convinced of this. I predict that the polls over the weekend will show the Tories having 40% +. Sorry to those hoping for a hung parliament, it aint gonna happen :(

  10. Peter Davidson,

    That is the kind of approach which has shown LDs & their predecessor parties as more focused on what they want rather than the good of the country.

    The single biggest issue facing this country is far and away teh state of the public finances, with a double-digit annual deficit and national debt rising rapidly.

    Compared to that everything else – including any constitutional issues – pale into insignificance. Unless the deficit is brought under control and public finances returned to surplus, then we as a country cannot afford anything near the level of public spending to which we have become accustomed.

  11. Quoting from the article:

    “Should a Prime Minister loose a vote of confidence, ”

    As opposed to tight a vote a confidence?

  12. Robert,

    Well, it does look as though any confidence vote would be tight !

  13. Here’s a scenario I haven’t seen discussed. Owing to the death of the UKIP candidate, the election in the Thirsk and Malton constituency has been postponed to 27 May, two days after Parliament is due to reassemble.

    What would happen if the Parliamentary arithmetic were so close that the composition of a new government depended on the outcome in this seat? Would the opening of Parliament have to be delayed?

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