Surely this must be the final word on the ongoing “Vote SNP, get Tory”, “Vote SNP, get a UKIP-Green hybrid” and “Vote Green, get lucky with an unwashed activist” nonsense.
Here is the government’s own Cabinet Manual, released in October 2011, subtitled “a guide to laws, conventions and rules on the operation of government”. If you’re so inclined, you can read the whole thing here, but I’ve picked out the important bits below.
You might notice a distinct lack of anything stating “the largest party gets to be the government”…
2.11 After an election, if an incumbent government retains an overall majority … it will normally continue in office and resume normal business. If the election results in an overall majority for a different party, the incumbent Prime Minister and government will immediately resign and the Sovereign will invite the leader of the party that has won the election to form a government.
Makes sense so far. This is the standard overall majority outcome that Westminster elections produced for most of the twentieth century.
2.12 Where an election does not result in an overall majority for a single party, the incumbent government remains in office unless and until the Prime Minister tenders his or her resignation and the Government’s resignation to the Sovereign. An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.
So here’s scenario one. No party wins an overall majority. David Cameron decides to battle on as Prime Minister even if his party has fewer seats than Labour. Mr Cameron attempts to rule with a minority government, seeking approval from the opposition parties on a vote-by-vote basis.
It’s unlikely that he’ll get very far, given the adverserial nature of the House of Commons, but the rules clearly state that he’s allowed to give it a go. The fact that he doesn’t lead the largest party is neither here nor there – it’s his right as incumbent to have first go at carrying on.
2.13 Where a range of different administrations could potentially be formed, political parties may wish to hold discussions to establish who is best able to command the confidence of the House of Commons and should form the next government. The Sovereign would not expect to become involved in any negotiations, although there are responsibilities on those involved in the process to keep the Palace informed.
Here is scenario two. It’s the more likely scenario, and it’s what happened in 2010. No party wins an overall majority, which sparks a frantic round of negotiation between the various parties to see who can cobble together a workable alliance. In 2010, this let the Liberal Democrats choose between Labour and Tory coalition partners, but it’s easy to see that a more diverse parliament with potentially dozens of SNP members plus a smattering of Green, UKIP, DUP and SDLP representatives could make all manner of unlikely bedfellows possible.
The three main options are spelled out in a later section.
2.17 The nature of the government formed will be dependent on discussions between political parties and any resulting agreement. Where there is no overall majority, there are essentially three broad types of government that could be formed:
- single-party, minority government, where the party may (although not necessarily) be supported by a series of ad hoc agreements based on common interests;
- formal inter-party agreement, for example the Liberal–Labour pact from 1977 to 1978; or
- formal coalition government, which generally consists of ministers from more than one political party, and typically commands a majority in the House of Commons.
Notice how none of the three options have any requirement for the largest party to be in government?
Of course, none of this takes into account that the SNP have ruled out any chance of working with the Tories. Seeing as no sane commentator would bet on them winning fewer than 20 seats, they can be presumed to be Labour allies unless Miliband’s party throw an almighty strop and refuse to co-operate.
Can we finally put the whole “largest party gets to form government” thing to bed then?