Incumbency matters in government formation

10 Downing Street

Chris Hanretty considers how the Fixed Term Parliament Act affects the government formation process after general elections.

Suppose that the forecasts are right, and that the Conservatives will be the largest party in the next parliament, but that parties opposed to the Conservatives will have a majorityplurality.

If you want specific numbers, suppose you have the Conservatives on 283, and Labour + SNP + Plaid + Greens + SDLP on 270 + 47 + 4 + 1 + 3 = 325. Note that the SNP has to join with Labour to ensure that anti-Conservative block have a plurality.

In this situation, what does David Cameron do?

  • He might realize that he does not command the support of a majority in the Commons and resign, allowing the Queen to call on Ed Miliband to form a government.
  • Or, he might go the House and force a no-confidence vote, which (ex hypothesi) he will lose, allowing the Queen to call on Ed Miliband to form a government.

Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, it matters which route Cameron chooses.

If he resigns straight away, Ed Miliband becomes Prime Minister, and there is no constitutional requirement that a majority of the Commons expresses its confidence in the government. In other words (and here I disagree with Tom Louwerse), the United Kingdom is an example of negative parliamentarism.

If Cameron forces the Commons to vote his government down, then under the FTPA, the Commons must formally vote its confidence in a Miliband-led government (section 2(3)).

This means that the SNP would be forced to vote in favour of a Labour government, and could not merely abstain.

If Miliband then uses the debate before the confidence motion to lay out a fairly explicit policy programme, he could then use this as a stick with which to beat the SNP, arguing “you voted for it” whenever disagreement arose.

For the Conservatives, who seem hell-bent on linking Labour and the SNP, it might be useful to ensure that the SNP explicitly votes for a Labour government.

So if the forecasts are right, Cameron might have reason to go to the Commons only to be voted down.

Chris Hanretty is a Reader in Politics at the University of East Anglia.

Photo credit: FLickr

This post originally appeared on: Chris Hanretty’s blog

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