Britain may pay a “potentially high price” if it does not do more to minimise the controversy, indecisiveness and uncertainty that a hung parliament after the next election is likely to create, according to academic research examining the rules contained in the government manual advising civil servants on how a caretaker government operates.
Most predictions and academic forecasts are pointing to a hung parliament and in the third week of the campaign, party leaders are being asked questions about how they will behave in the event of such an outcome, including how they would consult their own parties.
At the weekend Nick Clegg said he would not form a coalition with Ukip, adding that he expected an outcome in which his party again held the balance of power between Labour and the Conservatives. Clegg has repeated he will speak first to the party with the most votes.
Ed Miliband has said he will not do a deal with the Scottish Nationalists, and the Greens have said if they held part of the balance of power they would expect to operate a confidence and supply arrangement giving themselves the freedom to vote on a case by case basis.
The Labour leader is under intense private pressure to “game” the likely options after an election and some Labour figures are startled by what they regard as a lack of preparation, including an assumption that Labour governing as a minority party would be an option.
In a paper for Political Quarterly called Squatters in Downing Street, two academics – Petra Schleiter, an associate professor of politics at St Hildas, Oxford, and Valerie Belu – also warn that important aspects of the constitutional arrangements surrounding a coalition government have been changed by a fixed term parliament, and not been fully addressed in the cabinet manual revised by the civil service in 2011 in the wake of the 2010 coalition talks.
The researchers found there would be particular problems regarding the operation of a caretaker government, which is led by the incumbent prime minister following an inconclusive election result. The manual
• Does not set out the justification for limitations on government power during caretaker periods. It argues the manual blurs the distinction between a period of purdah immediately before an election when a government should not make announcements that might garner votes, and the period of a caretaker government when votes have been cast, and no such advantage applies.
• Does “not stipulate unequivocally that a caretaker government cannot resign until its successor has been formed and therefore does not guarantee the continuing existence of a government at all times”.
The manual merely states “recent examples suggest that previous prime ministers have not offered their resignations until there was a situation in which clear advice could be given to the sovereign on who should be asked to form a government. It remains to be seen whether or not these examples will be regarded in future as having established a constitutional convention”.
On the basis of this, the Lords constitution select committee has concluded an incumbent prime minister has no duty to remain in office until it is clear what form an alternative government might take.• Does not clearly specify when a caretaker government has come to an end. The authors point out the cabinet manual merely states “the point at which the restrictions in financial and other commitments should come to an end depends on circumstances but may often be either when a new prime minister is appointed by the sovereign or where a government’s ability to command the confidence of the Commons has been tested in the Commons”. The ambivalence, the authors say, means there is no carefully defined moment when the caretaker government has commenced or concluded.
• Does not give clarity to the restrictions on the actions of a caretaker government. For instance it is not clear if the caretaker government is in power for a relatively long period what decisions it is entitled to take, or what restrictions would be imposed on a government signing contracts. There is also no statement on the degree to which a governing party needs to consult other parties on the decisions it plans to take.
The authors warn: “The price countries may pay for failing to anticipate the controversy, indecisiveness and uncertainty that caretaker periods may spark is potentially high.”
They add that the rules surrounding a fixed-term parliament mean it is quite possible that a caretaker government after the 2015 election will last longer than the five days Gordon Brown remained in Downing Street after the 2010 election. This would be partly due to all the main parties needing to spend longer consulting their own parties on any prospective coalition deal and partly because the Fixed Term Parliament Act clarifies how a government is formed and dissolved.
The academics suggest recent changes to the rules “could engender a prolonged caretaker period of 51 days – the longest period between dissolution [of the old parliament] and the first session of the new parliament since 1924 and 15 days longer than in 2010”.
It adds this period could be extended because the Fixed Term Parliament Act means a government can no longer dissolve parliament at will. A dissolution can only occur if a two-thirds majority in parliament votes for dissolution or if a no confidence motion in the government is passed and parliament fails to endorse a new government in 14 days.
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