In what promises to be a knife-edge election, the Tories could emerge well ahead of Labour in the national share of the vote, but still have insufficient MPs in the Commons to rule as a majority.
In this scenario, they would have won the election, but failed to reach the magic number of 326 needed to govern on their own and ensure the passage of legislation through parliament. In 2010, David Cameron’s party won 36.1% of the vote, giving them 306 MPs, against 29.0% for Labour who secured 258. The Tories were still 20 seats short. In the end Cameron teamed up in coalition with the Lib Dems, who had 57 seats. The pollsters believe the Conservatives could fall short again, by a similar number. Probably with fewer Lib Dems to fall back on this time around, what could David Cameron do then?
THE OPTIONS FOR CAMERON
In 2010 the Conservatives fell 20 seats short of the magic 326. With the 57 Lib Dems as coalition partners, however, they had comfortably enough to command a Commons majority. This time the Liberal Democrats are likely to suffer heavy losses and could be left with 30 MPs, or even fewer. There may well not be enough left on 8 May to secure the Tories their majority without help from elsewhere. (In any case, it may be that Nick Clegg’s pro-EU party decides against going in with the Tories again, believing it can recover best while in opposition.) The Tories’ coalition options are limited. Ukip (which is likely to win only a handful of seats) has said it would not join a formal deal; nor would Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, led by Peter Robinson, which currently has eight MPs in Westminster. The SNP won’t touch the Tories in any shape or form, nor will the Greens. So if the numbers simply aren’t there, perhaps Cameron could try a minority Tory-Lib Dem coalition, backed informally by Nigel Farage, and the DUP, but it would be a fragile, messy structure, even if the sums added up.
Problem areas: Europe referendum, electoral reform
A big problem could be Europe. Would the Lib Dems back Cameron’s plans for an in/out referendum? If they did, they might demand a big prize in return, such as PR for local elections, extended free childcare, progress on Lords reform and less brutal welfare cuts.
Confidence and supply
There are plenty of Tory MPs who, despite a narrow win for their party, would be very cross with Cameron for failing to deliver a majority again. But if he were to add insult to injury by seeking another coalition with the Lib Dems, he could face an internal party revolt. That is one good reason why something short of a full coalition deal – like a “confidence and supply” agreement with the Lib Dems and others, including possibly Ukip and the DUP – could work. The parties signing up would guarantee backing for the government on budgetary matters and confidence issues, but every other vote would be approached on a case-by-case basis. It would be less certain and stable, but would allow Lib Dems, Ukip and the DUP to feel less bound to a Tory agenda. A drawback for Cameron would be that he would have to tread carefully on issues such as welfare and public sector cuts, which are key to Tory plans for cutting the deficit. He would also be unable to blame coalition politics for whatever went wrong.
Problem areas: childcare, electoral reform, Europe referendum
The need for deals would be far less than in a coalition, but the Lib Dems would certainly try to gain something on areas of domestic policy. A big question mark would hover over Tory plans for an EU referendum. Could Lib Dems really agree to it?
A large section of the Tory party is sick of coalition and some Conservatives would prefer go it alone in a minority government, seeking support for votes on a case-by-case basis and daring the other parties to bring them down.
Many Tory MPs say power is not worth having if you have to share it with your opponents. So why not, they ask, imitate the model of the SNP, who governed without a majority between 2007 and 2011 and then won outright after that? Writing in the Daily Telegraph,former Tory chairman Lord Tebbit predicted recently that “whichever of the main party leaders fails to get into No 10 after the election, Mr Cameron will make full use of his rights as a sitting tenant and carry on as prime minister – but of a Conservative minority administration”. But the stakes would be high. How on earth would a Tory minority administration be able to legislate for an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU if Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP – all strongly pro-Europe – opposed it?
Problem areas: austerity measures, welfare cuts, Europe referendum
The Conservatives would have to choose their battles very carefully. They would face huge problems driving through more austerity measures, more deep cuts to welfare – and even their EU referendum, which for many of their own MPs is the highest priority of all.
IF TORIES ARE THE LARGEST PARTY… WHAT HAPPENS TO MILIBAND?
If Labour fails to win on 7 May, the conventional wisdom is that Ed Miliband will be finished. What is certainly true is that he would not want to plough on if the Tories had won a thumping majority or even a narrow one: he would go immediately, or at least set a date for his departure. That would pave the way for a leadership contest that could involve Yvette Cooper, Chuka Umunna and Andy Burnham, to name but three. However, just as so much about this election is uncertain, the future of Miliband could well remain shrouded in doubt for some time after 7 May. In the event of Labour falling just short, and if the Tories came out ahead, but not by much, friends of Miliband believe he might well stay on while a chance remained that Labour could step in. Equally, if things were so unstable that a second election looked likely, he might remain until clarity emerged. Or he might follow the model of former Tory leader Michael Howard after his 2005 defeat, and remain in post for a period to let the dust settle before stepping down. In short, so long as Miliband feels he has a chance of becoming PM, he is likely to stay. After that, no one can see him remaining for long.
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