A Very British Coup?

So this morning the intertubes is all excited about the prospect of what they’re calling on Twitter the #torycoup.

Roughly speaking, the idea is that in the event of a hung parliament, David Cameron isn’t going to wait patiently for Gordon Brown to deliberate at leisure over his future as prime minister, but is going publicly to declare victory and demand “the keys to Number 10” (which is a funny expression, as the famous front door to 10 Downing St doesn’t have a keyhole in it); and that he’ll be cheered on in doing this by the rightwing press. The normally very sensible Sunder Katwala sets out the argument and the evidence over here, and a version of the argument has also been posted over here.

Count me as seriously unimpressed.

There’s a lot wrong with the British constitution, but one of its virtues is that things get made up as we go along. There’s something absolutely bonkers about lefties – of all people – getting all precious about the ways in which the Cabinet Secretary’s memo about the proper procedures in the event of a hung parliament might not be followed to the letter, or worrying that – my goodness! – the Queen might be drawn into political controversy. How undignified!

People are making analogies with the presidential election in the United States in 2000 — but what was striking then was far more the spinelessness of the Dems rather than the unscrupulousness of the Repugs. The bottom line is that politics is about power, and if the Tories are the only ones willing to play hardball, then – bluntly – good for them.  If the Queen discredits herself along the way by being pressured into being openly partisan, then that’s a good thing, as it’ll work to hasten the end of this stupid monarchy.  And if voters disapprove of what the Tories are doing, then they’ll punish them when they get the chance. That’s democracy.

7 thoughts on “A Very British Coup?”

  1. But Chris, surely a constitution must be reflective of the need to secure a well-ordered and stable society, as would be endorsed by agents acting in rational, universalisable ways showing equal concern and respect for all and securing a settlement they would be happy with if they themselves were not fortunate enough to find themselves in positions of power. If our political leaders – the key movers-and-shakers – cannot respect the need to embed procedural justice in the basic structure of our society – which includes especially our constitution – how can this possibly be justified?


  2. p.s. on a more serious note, Sunder et al are just displaying an unsurprising manifestation of tribalism+Tory-hate/fear.

    Indeed, they may (perhaps unconsciously) be behaving in a rather less stupid manner than you describe. If they were to succeed in making a Cameron power-gamble sufficiently illegitimate in the popular perception that Cameron wouldn’t try it, that would be good strategy.

    The action of course turns on the fact that they won’t succeed in this task, and should rather accommodate themselves to the situation you describe and think of ways to deal with it, given that they probably can’t stop it.

    So although your prescriptions and predictions are probably right, I think there’s a case for saying Sunder et. al. aren’t being quite as stupid as you suggest.

  3. that would be good strategy

    Well, yes, but since – as you go on to imply – a blogpost, even if posted at both Next Left and Liberal Conspiracy, isn’t in fact going to conjure into being a patriotic army to defend the Constitution-as-interpreted-by-Gus-O’Donnell, however many times it gets “retweeted”, it’s not really a terribly good strategy, is it?

    If you want to go down this “Tory coup” road, it’s far better to do it as Paul Cotterill is doing it and stress the role of class power, rather than to emphasise constitutional propriety, as Sunder’s doing. (See also Stuart W’s comment at Lib Con.)


  4. “Well, yes, but since – as you go on to imply – a blogpost, even if posted at both Next Left and Liberal Conspiracy, isn’t in fact going to conjure into being a patriotic army to defend the Constitution-as-interpreted-by-Gus-O’Donnell, however many times it gets “retweeted”, it’s not really a terribly good strategy, is it?”

    oh sure, I was just being super-pedantic (ironic as I didn’t express myself clearly) and noting that they’re not being stupid in some ‘necessary’, ‘fundamental’ sense but have just failed to grasp the practicalities of the situation and it’s that failure to see the big
    picture (the blogger’s navel-gaze syndrome?) that’s the real problem here. We’re/I am splitting hairs because this was basically contained in your OP…I’m just finding excuses to not revise for my exam in between now and John Dunn’s talk at 5.

  5. Presumably this plan applies to a situation where the Tories are ahead of Labour in seats but Labour plus the Lib Dems could form a coalition with a workable majority?

    I’m unclear what the mechanism is here to force Brown to quit in those circumstances. There is a clear precedent for the sitting PM being allowed to stay on for a few days to try to secure a majority – Heath did that in Feb ’74. So what is DaveCam gonna do exactly? Storm Number 10 with campaign workers from Tory central office? Give me a break. All Brown needs to do is tell him to f*** off and give the incumbent a reasonable chance to form a govt. That, surely, is standard procedure.

    If this is the very worst that Labour has to worry about in a hung parliament situation, it’s really rather encouraging.

  6. You’re right that the ultimate question is Humpty Dumpty’s – which is to be master; the British Constitution will absorb whatever happens, almost by definition. But I think Sunder’s post is a bit more than a fit of the ‘constitutionalist’ vapours. The point seems to me to be that Cameron’s shenanigans (if they take place) will be built on constitutional nitpickery, and not very good nitpickery at that – pulling it apart bit by bit is a service to the people who may be faced with it on Friday, and probably a more constructive service than reminding the world that the Tories are class warriors and can’t be trusted.

  7. This is indeed low on the list of worries. In February 1974, Heath tried to do a deal with the Liberals. Thorpe was sympathetic but the rest of the Liberal party weren’t. Wilson said that Labour was ready to form a government and sat back and waited (though privately he was annoyed.) By the end of the weekend it was obvious Heath had to go and he went.
    The tricky situation will come if Labour gets more seats than the Tories though with fewer votes. Then the Tories will find it much harder to claim they have right on their side. My guess is that if that happens Clegg will reveal his true nature and put the Tories in. That’s why in spite of all the horrors of this government I’ve ended up voting Labour.

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