With just sixteen days to go until we cast our votes in the 2015 general election, politicians and commentators of all stripes are suddenly waking up to the realisation that the party they hate most – be it Labour, the Evil Tories, the nationalist parties or UKIP – may very easily end up in government despite failing to win anything close to a popular mandate, thanks to some unpredictable and largely unstoppable backroom deal following a hung parliament.
In response, every commentator in the land seems to be turning into a bad-weather constitutional reformer, bemoaning the impending political chaos now that it is nearly upon us, despite having taken almost no interest in these dull, un-sexy constitutional issues when there were other, more fun things to write about.
If neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Miliband were able to put together a viable government, a second election would normally follow; but the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 complicates matters. It provides for a dissolution of Parliament only when there is a specific vote of no confidence in the government or if two thirds of all MPs vote for an election. This makes the prospect of another early general election less likely. In any case, the parties may have little appetite for one given the expense and the prospect of losing support in a fresh contest.
Without a dissolution we would have a legislature but no government, a bit like Belgium, where the prime minister resigned in April 2010 and no new parliamentary majority could be established for almost two years. The country was run by a former prime minister brought out of retirement and a caretaker administration. It didn’t do them much harm. A report by academics at the University of Leuven noted that the government continued to make “legitimate decisions” on urgent matters of public finance and national security while MPs squabbled. They concluded that “in mature democracies, a power vacuum is taken care of in a constructive, creative, and responsible way”. Do we have such virtues? We might be about to find out very soon.
One thing is clear: a minority Labour government, with fewer seats than the Tories, running the country while in thrall to a nationalist party that has only 2 or 3 per cent of the total UK vote, would test our constitutional structures to breaking point, and maybe beyond. More than that, it could test our creaking, centuries-old Union to destruction.
Isn’t it funny how Britain’s growing ranks of amateur constitutional scholars and reform zealots have only come crawling out of the woodwork now that they are faced with the prospect that the party they dislike might end up calling the shots while not being the largest party in terms of either vote share or seats?