As the election nears, and with the Tories creeping up in the polls, there is a growing view at Westminster that Labour could emerge on 8 May with more seats than the Tories despite having secured a slightly lower share of the national vote.
Yet few believe Miliband’s party will take sufficient seats to achieve a majority and govern alone.
If Labour secures in the region of 290 MPs, and the Tories take 10 to 20 fewer, it would be seen in Labour circles as a win that would leave Ed Miliband in pole position to become the next prime minister. But he would still have to reach 326 to have a majority. He would then have to make a choice between attempting to forge a formal coalition deal with one or more smaller parties, a looser arrangement to see him through crucial votes, or ruling as a high-risk minority government.
THE OPTIONS FOR MILIBAND
A Labour-Lib Dem coalition – involving a formal deal on policies and a share of ministerial jobs – is one option, but it depends on many variables. Even if Miliband and Nick Clegg (assuming the latter retains his seat) decide they want a deal, the final numbers may not add up.
If Labour falls 40 short of a majority and the Lib Dems end up with 35 MPs (down from 56 now), their combined tally would not be enough.
After such a battering the Lib Dems might even prefer a period in opposition and could refuse a deal with Labour, fearing it could fall apart and taint them further.
If the Lib Dems alone cannot get Labour across the line, Miliband could try to bind in other parties – Plaid Cymru (currently with three seats) and the Greens (currently one), but these are tiny numbers. Or could it be a hybrid – with the SNP (which could have more MPs than the Lib Dems but would not join a coalition) offering some assurances to the partners in a formal deal, guaranteeing Miliband the numbers he needs in key votes?
Problem areas: Electoral reform, Education, Devolution
Nick Clegg would want his pounds of flesh, including perhaps the introduction of PR for local elections, moves towards Lords reform, money for the pupil premium, and more devolution. Other parties would have a list of demands, too.
Confidence and supply
With a formal coalition difficult to stitch together, a looser “confidence and supply” option with other parties could be the answer. Under such a deal, Labour would again turn to the Lib Dems and/or the SNP. Miliband would not hand over ministerial jobs or make joint policy commitments – but the other parties would back him on supply of money and confidence votes.
There would still be nothing to stop Labour attempting a wider deal that included commitments on other issues, such as Europe.
Some Liberal Democrats on the party’s left – and plenty of Tories, mainly on the right – wish the two parties had struck a confidence and supply deal in 2010. Disgruntled Lib Dems say they would still have looked like a responsible third party but would have preserved more independence. Tories say they would have been able to deliver more Conservative policies without being held back by Clegg and Co.
Problem areas: Devolution, Trident, Education
Less for Labour than in a true coalition. The SNP could push for progress towards home rule, a rethink on Trident and curbs on military intervention, while the Lib Dems press for influence over key domestic issues like education and childcare.
Minority government would be appealing to many Labour MPs who don’t want to be bound by their opponents. Labour would rule “by the seat of its pants” with no pre-set deals, building support in votes on a case-by-case basis, as and when it needed to. It is what Harold Wilson did in 1974 – govern as a minority for a period, then seek a second election in the hope of a majority. There are plenty of Labour people who believe a shortish period of minority government might be the best way for the leader to prove himself.
The risk could just turn out to be less than anticipated. It is difficult to see circumstances in which a rump of Lib Dems (now a “party of government”) and/or the SNP would vote to bring down a minority Labour government in a hurry, causing economic uncertainty and possibly opening the way for another Tory-led administration.
If minority government was working, Miliband could just carry on. Minority governments can work. Between 2007 and 2011, the SNP ruled in Scotland despite being 18 seats short of a majority, and then won outright. In Canada, Stephen Harper did the same from 2006 until 2011, after which he was granted a full mandate.
Problem areas: limited scope for radical action
Labour’s room for manoeuvre would be limited and it would have to avoid controversial any votes.
It would face accusations of running a “do nothing” administration, which would not fit with Miliband’s claim to radicalism, and leftwing MPs will not like their government to be so constrained.
IF LABOUR IS THE LARGEST PARTY... WHAT HAPPENS TO CAMERON?
If Cameron fails to get more seats than Miliband, he is a goner. In the eyes of his MPs, he will be the Tory leader who could not win a majority against Gordon Brown and lost to Miliband. Given the way Cameron has cranked up the rhetoric against Miliband recently, he will struggle to make a serious case to go on. After the Labour conference last year, he told the 1922 Committee: “If we, the Conservative party, cannot defeat that complete shower of an opposition, we don’t deserve to be in politics.” Last week, at prime minister’s questions, he called Miliband “despicable” for failing to rule out a deal with the SNP.
Cameron may even be in trouble with his own MPs if he secures the most seats but falls well short of a majority. Expect the weeks after 7 May to see parallel dramas: Labour agonising over how to govern and a fiery Conservative leadership contest between new MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip Boris Johnson, former home secretary Theresa May, and, possibly, former chancellor George Osborne.
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