Friday, 27 February 2015

Can anything save us from this constitutional car crash?

The latest predictions from The Guardian for the outcome of the UK general election will occupy the dreams of political scientists and the nightmares of politicians. The figures speak of a constitutional crisis. A stalemate in which a most unlikely coalition would need to be formed in order to produce a majority government.

If these numbers were reflected in the poll on May 7th, the only mathematically plausible option is for Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats to forge a three-way alliance.

The disgraced former minister Chris Huhne rightly points out that the fixed-term parliaments may tend to favour coalition rather than minority government. But that presupposes there really is a workable coalition. I see this ScotLibLab pact as being something that might possibly be agreed on paper out of desperation, but which would be inherently unstable from hour one. Trident, tuition fees, the history of recent animosity. It’s a recipe for absolute chaos.

Of course, it’s the SNP who have put the marauding, predatory cat among the puffed-up pigeons of the London establishment. Who would have thought that a referendum which the nationalists lost would subsequently give them the whip hand at Westminster? But in The Guardian’s poll, it is they who will prevent Labour from having the automatic claim to form a government and make a mockery of the complacency too many in the Labour hierarchy had about the benefits of the electoral system.

The position of all the party leaders is extremely precarious. If Cameron fails to win an overall majority for the Tories, I really think he is history. There are too many right-wingers who see his coalition government as weak-willed and unnecessary. They have been biting their tongues to a certain extent, but will sink their teeth elsewhere after the election.

The Labour Party will be kinder to Miliband, but only if he succeeds in making Labour the largest force in Parliament. Unfortunately, thanks to the SNP, The Guardian predicts that he won’t even manage that. He will survive only as long as he is a credible contender for Prime Minister.

Nick Clegg might cling on to his tightly-fought seat of Sheffield Hallam, although there are people who understandably pray for a student revolution and a ‘Portillo moment’.

If we imagine he survives, he’ll have more MPs than some people suppose. That’s because the Lib Dems (despite their long-standing support for electoral reform) have played the first-past-the-post system very well and have entrenched their vote in some key constituencies. In my own area, I imagine that Vince Cable will survive, for example, even though the Tories control the local council and are hopeful of ousting him.

But Clegg will be a busted flush. The Lib Dems will know he’s poison when it comes to any negotiations with Labour and the SNP, so a third coup d’├ętat is surely in the offing.

Of course, there is a lot of water to flow under Westminster Bridge. Slight fluctuations in the percentage figures could shift the arithmetical balance. All it might take is a relatively small thing that moves the polls by a couple of points. A particularly strong or weak performance in the election debates, for instance, assuming they go ahead. Or a policy initiative that has some genuine stand-out value.

Peter Kellner of YouGov said today that he feels the Labour pledge to cut tuition fees to £6,000 could potentially swing the vote Miliband’s way in nine constituencies. Under normal circumstances, this might be hardly worth the effort. But in 2015, who knows?

Miliband did well, I thought, on the latest cash-for-access scandal. Despite former Jack Straw’s involvement alongside Malcolm Rifkind, the Labour leader managed to turn it into a here-and-now question: do we stop outside interests or don’t we? As a result, Cameron was left bleating unconvincingly about people running family businesses and looking hopelessly out of touch with the public mood.

Will issues of parliamentary probity make a difference? Or do the electors already think ‘a plague on all your houses’? The attack on tax avoidance didn’t seem to land a killer punch.

My feeling is that in the final weeks of the campaign, each of the two major party leaders will be looking for that tiny piece of good fortune that will make a difference of 10 or 15 or 20 seats. If it proves elusive, Labour and the Tories will retreat into their well-established comfort zones of the NHS and the economy respectively. May 7th will roll around and we’ll be in for a very rocky ride.