What’s going to happen in the election next week? My hunch right now is that the Tories are going to win fewer than 300 seats, and that they’ll go on to form a minority government. And then things are going to get interesting.
The prediction of 280-300 seems to be more or less conventional wisdom these days. UNS forecasts based on current polling figures give the Tories slightly fewer than that, but people who’ve thought a bit more about what the polls are telling us and have constructed more sophisticated voting models reckon that they’ll do a bit better, though not much better, than this. Yesterday’s Politicshome forecast of yesterday has 289; the fivethirtyeight.com model has 299.
And that seems about right to me. It’s hard to see the Tories doing much better, unless the polls are screwy on the scale of 1992, since no one seems to think they’ve got much chance of winning significant numbers of seats from the Lib Dems (which is what the original Tory game-plan required); and while I’d be very pleased if they did a lot worse, and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility, it feels like wishful thinking right now seriously to contemplate that kind of result.
If that’s what happens, then a Tory minority government seems by far the most likely outcome. A coalition – either Lib/Lab or Lib/Con – seems implausible, and I wonder why the press is talking about it quite so much. Actually, I don’t see why any of the parties would pursue one. Partly, it’s that both Labour and the Tories hate the Lib Dems, and I think that matters in these kinds of circumstances. But there are a couple of more specific points that I haven’t seen discussed much, which would seem to me to make coalition-formation really quite hard to pull off.
One is that the Lib Dems are a pretty contradictory formation, with the activists to the left of the MPs, and the MPs to the left of the bulk of the Lib Dem voters. That’s a pretty impressionistic view, to be sure, but there seems to be quite a lot to say for it. This on its own is going to paralyse the party in the event of a hung parliament, and make it basically unable to head either Right or Left in any coherent fashion. But there’s a further reason why the larger parties aren’t going to be terribly keen to deal with the Lib Dems, which is that party rules seem to require any deal to be ratified by a substantial vote of both the Lib Dems’ parliamentary party (fair enough) but also some extra-parliamentary party council or other (I forget what that’s called), and I find it hard to envisage either Brown or Cameron being willing to put the future of their own party in government into the hands of a non-parliamentary body like that.
More generally, if there’s a hung parliament, all the party bosses will be acting in a risk-averse kind of a way. They’ll all be nervous about a second general election, and none of them will be wanting to gamble much, especially not by making the kinds of gambles that will make them vulnerable to the machinations of their rivals. So: no coalition. Instead, Cameron forms a minority government, and relies on the fact that the Commons will probably be unwilling to defeat a non-crazy programme in a vote on the Queen’s Speech, on the grounds that MPs will be terrified of being punished by the electorate for playing silly buggers in an immediately-ensuing second election. (The obvious scenario is that Labour votes against and the Lib Dems abstain, and the government gets a majority — allowing everyone to save face.)
But if that’s right, then what will Cameron be doing in government? One of the few dividing lines between the parties on economic strategy has been that Labour has been talking about a severe programme of public spending cuts starting next year, and the Tories talk about moving to reduce the deficit immediately. But if there’s a Conservative minority government, it’ll be less likely to want to hit public spending immediately, as it’ll be looking to gain credibility simply by holding office, and it’ll want to hold a second general election before wielding the spending axe in a big way, and thereby becoming really unpopular. So my guess is that a Tory chancellor will stick more closely to the kind of programme Brown has been setting out, an emergency budget will be held, but it will be not especially drastic, and we’ll head into a fairly quiet period in which the Tories will try to win over a slice of centrist public opinion as a prelude to a second election, either in the Autumn or early next year – basically, as soon as they think they can win it.
And this, of course, creates problems for both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. Obviously if Mr Brown leads Labour to their heaviest defeat since 1983, he ought to resign immediately. But Labour probably doesn’t want to have a very public post mortem and leadership battle if there’s a very fragile Tory government, however much it also doesn’t want to go into a second election campaign with Gordon Brown as its leader. On the Tory side, I’m also guessing that big chunks of the Party will be furious with Cameron: they tolerated his centrism on the condition that he won a big majority in the election, and since that’s not going to happen, there ought to be some kind of backlash – though that will be held in check by the desire not to rock the boat as the Party pursues the goal of an overall majority in the event of a second election, and enjoys at least some of the pleasures of being back in Government.
Well: obviously it won’t turn out like this. My predictions never hold. (I even thought Kerry would beat Bush.) But I do think it’s a shame that election commentary turns so much on obviously fantasy-politics considerations (will the parties do a deal on PR? will Clegg become Prime Minister? will there be a ‘progressive alliance’? and so on), rather than on thinking at all seriously about what the political dynamics and constraints of the post-election situation are in fact likely to be.