April 4, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
In a sign of the chaos to come from May 8th, Labour have been taking legal advice to try and deal with the possibility of David Cameron ‘squatting’ at 10 Downing Street for up to a month after the election even if he has won fewer seats than they have. Under the rules of succession, the sitting Prime Minister is expected to stay in Downing Street until a new government has been formed, to make sure there is continuity of leadership of the country. In fact, Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood has made it clear he would expect Cameron to stay in Downing Street in the event of a hung Parliament until it is clear that Labour and other parties can form a command a majority in the Houses of Parliament. Given the current electoral maths indicated by the polls, this may not be as easy as it seems.
Let’s talk dates first. The idea is that whoever becomes the new prime minister is expected to ask Her Majesty to summon the new Parliament to meet on Monday, 18 May. The first business will be the election of the Speaker and the swearing-in of members. The Queen’s presentation of the policies of her new government in the House of Lords at the State Opening of Parliament is expected to follow on Wednesday, 27 May. This is the Queen’s speech, and a vote on it will need to follow, probably at the beginning of June.
The key thing to understand is that the vote on the Queen’s speech has to be won by whoever has formed the government for that government to continue. Otherwise, under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, the opposition will have 14 days to try and form an alternative government.
Even if Labour have the most seats, it might not be possible for them to form a coalition government with enough seats to have a majority in the House of Commons. This is because they have ruled out a Coalition with the SNP, who could hold up to 40 seats, most of them taken from Labour. It is also possible that Plaid Cymru and the Greens will not be prepared to form a formal post-election pact with Labour either, but rather cooperate with them on a vote by vote basis.
SO, Labour may need to get a deal with those parties before the Queen’s speech in order to prove that they should have the chance to give that speech rather than the Tories. That could be the burden of proof required for Cameron to leave Downing Street and accept a viable government has been formed. Otherwise he may try to give a Queen’s speech as a minority government – which may be met with a coordinated attempt to pass a vote of no confidence against him led by Labour.
Jeremy Haywood (who is politically impartial) has said that the continuity of government is the most important priority in the event of a Hung Parliament. So at the moment Cameron would have Heywood’s backing to stay as Prime Minister as long as Labour don’t look like they have a workable majority of MPs backing them. This could be for as long as a month.
The longer this takes, the longer Cameron has to work out a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and the DUP. Both have indicated they might be more comfortable in coalition with the Tories rather than Labour – although the Lib Dems could go either way in theory.
If this isn’t confusing enough, constitutional scholars are admitting that all this is supposed to be guided by the provisions in the 2011 Fixed Term Parliament Act, but there are disputed interpretations of some of these provisions – including the one about how Cameron could be removed by a vote of confidence once Parliament resumes – given the Act is all about providing stability.
Like I said, this election campaign may be getting rather repetitive and boring, but what comes afterwards is unlikely to be either!