By Dr. Alexandra Kelso, Associate Professor of British Politics at University of Southampton. You can read more posts by Alexandra Kelso here.
The start of the New Year has sparked fevered debate about the forthcoming May 2015 UK general election, and what the likely outcome of that election will be. The polls still indicate that another hung parliament will be the result, and although experts were confidently predicting a hung parliament well before the 2010 election, this time around there’s a sense that we’re all more mentally prepared for a result that was until recently viewed as exceptional in British electoral politics. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 8 January 2015, the former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell reflected on the coalition negotiations that followed in 2010, arguing that things ‘could be even messier’ this May, and that ‘it could take quite a lot longer next time to actually form a government.’ We should take this as the friendly warning that it was designed to be.
In 2010, it took four days for the parties to determine that there could be a coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. During that time, when negotiations between these two seemed to be flagging, Labour began discussions to see whether it might form a so-called ‘rainbow coalition’ with the Liberal Democrats and assorted nationalists. Gordon Brown attracted some criticism for remaining in office as Prime Minister for as long as he did, even although this was the constitutionally correct thing to do, to avoid a scenario which embroiled the Queen entirely inappropriately in political matters. Only when it was clear that Brown could no long command the confidence of the House of Commons (the key precept on which Westminster parliamentary government is based), and that Cameron would have to be summoned to form a government in his place (either a coalition or a minority), did Brown meet with the Queen and offer his resignation.
During those four days of negotiation between the political parties, supported and aided by the civil service staff at the Cabinet Office, what we saw on television news was the very turning of the cogs of the British constitution. Previously, the visual cues following a UK general election in which the incumbent party had been defeated involved the outgoing Prime Minister being driven to Buckingham Palace in the ministerial Jaguar while the removal vans lined up around the back of No.10 Downing Street, followed by the triumphant winner following immediately in his or her wake to be invited by the Queen to form a government. The transfer of power, and the investing of governing authority in a Prime Minister, was swift, often brutally so. But in 2010 we were deprived of that speedy transfer of power, and as Gus O’Donnell indicated on the Today programme, the possible permutations that might emerge this coming May could preclude quick coalition negotiations. Depending on how the Conservatives fare, this could prompt debate about whether Cameron ought to remain as Prime Minister and for how long, particularly if the eventual government formed does not look likely to include his party in it.
For a long time, we assumed that there were no meaningful questions regarding what happens following general elections in this country. That is no longer the case. This summer will see the publication of an edited collection called Parliaments and Government Formation: Unpacking Investiture Rules (Oxford University Press), to which I’ve contributed a chapter on the UK, where I map out what it means to invest power in a Prime Minister in the UK political system, and how this process has the potential for considerable complexity in an environment of hung parliaments. If, as Gus O’Donnell has predicted, there are coalition negotiations this May, and they take even longer than they did in 2010, this may prompt broader reflection on the constitutional position of an incumbent Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of a general election. And, as has been the case so often in the recent history of UK constitutional politics, it may be the very process of constitutional change itself which prompts attention to what the rules should, in fact, be.