The funniest joke doing the rounds on social media today is that British LibDem leader Nick Clegg has now changed his Facebook relationship status to “it's complicated”. It is an amusing but accurate enough summary of where things stand after the tightest British election since February 1974. That year’s hung parliament forced another election later that year and many are predicting the same outcome after last Thursday’s election produced no clear winner. Despite losing seats from 2005, Clegg’s party is in a position to woo a suitor and some heavy duty negotiation is on the cards before a shotgun wedding can happen in the days and weeks to come. (Photograph: Luke Macgregor/Reuters)
The most obvious and workable coalition would be between the Conservatives and the LibDems. The Financial Times reports David Cameron and Clegg are involved in “intense negotiation” to agree on a power-sharing pact before the markets open on Monday morning. During the election campaign Cameron had ruled out such an arrangement but he appears to have now woken up to the realpolitik of the situation.
Cameron is likely to realise his dream of being the first Tory Prime Minister since John Major yet the election must be tinged with some disappointment. After seemingly heading for a landslide victory in poll after poll, his popularity slumped in a mediocre election campaign. Voters wanted Gordon Brown out but did not trust Cameron enough to give him an undiluted majority. The Tory-leaning Telegraph is openly talking about who might replace him if attempts at forming a government fell apart.
With 649 seats up for decision, a party must get 325 seats to form a majority. In practice it needs to be even higher to counter the risk of MPs crossing the floor or losing by-elections. The Tories had the most votes and the most seats in a swing of 3.8 percent but could only turn this into 306 seats. With the LibDems on 57 seats (down 5 from 2005), a coalition between the two would muster 363 seats for a comfortable majority of 77 seats. The question remains however is whether either would survive for five years to another election, given the philosophical differences between the parties.
A possible alternative would be allowing the Tories to form a minority government on the understanding the LibDems would not block supply, but this would appear to be a very slippery slope towards an early election. What Clegg wants most is electoral reform so that their 23 percent of the vote translates into a similar number of seats (at the moment they have 8.8 percent). Neither the Tories nor Labour (nor the media which prefers the clean lines of "first past the post") are inclined to support this reform.
But if Clegg has some hope of getting a negotiated settlement with Cameron, there appears no chance of him supporting Gordon Brown to return to 10 Downing Street, even though the two parties are closer. With Labour on 258 seats, the combined parties would be 12 seats short of an outright majority and requiring the support of motley nationalist groups such as the Scotland’s SNP (6), Wales’ Plaid Cymru (3) and Northern Ireland’s SLDP (3) to get them over the line. While such a rainbow coalition is possible and common enough in Europe, experience suggests they rarely last for long.
There was also probably a great deal of truth in the rumour the post-election phone call between Clegg and Brown ended acrimoniously. It seems reasonable that Clegg might have suggested Labour was tainted by Brown’s leadership and the two parties might work better together with a new Labour leader. A senior unnamed LibDem source told the BBC’s Jon Sopel the conversation went downhill after Clegg’s resignation suggestion with Brown launching into a “diatribe and a rant” though both parties have strenuously denied Sopel’s report.
Yet whatever the outcome, Labour can cling to the idea the election was a relief. Previous by-elections had seen the party slaughtered with the ultimate humiliation of finishing fifth behind the Greens and the BNP in the 2008 Henley by-election. At that stage, YouGov were polling the Tories at 46 percent to Labour’s 28 percent. Labour haven't improved much since then - they only took 29 percent of the vote last week. But the big difference is the Tories lost 10 percent of the vote in the last two years saving Labour from an electoral whitewash.
Smart money at this stage has to be on a repeat of 1974 and another general election in November or thereabouts. Gordon Brown will be gone by then and one of the Miliband brothers will probably lead the party (it is just too difficult to imagine a British political party led by a man named “Balls”). Just as in 1974, the biggest party should win outright second time round. It is likely the Tories will learn from the mistakes of this campaign and get over the line as UK citizens worry about the effects of continued instability and Labour struggle with a new line up. And electoral reform is likely to wither on the vine.