Will the SNP run Britain under a minority Labour government?

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister in Bute House 2

Will the SNP really be able to call the tune for a minority Labour government and hold the country to ransom, as Conservative ministers have repeatedly claimed?

The latest to make the charge was the home secretary, Theresa May. She told the Mail on Sunday: “If we saw a Labour government propped up by SNP it could be the biggest constitutional crisis since the abdication. It would mean Scottish MPs who have no responsibility for issues like health, education and policing in their own constituencies [as they are devolved to the Scottish parliament] making decisions on those issues for England and Wales.

“Rightly, people in England would say, ‘Hang on a minute, why are Scottish nationalist MPs allowed to do that?’”

Labour has dismissed such claims as scaremongering, arguing that Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to rule out support for the Conservatives in government left the SNP without any negotiating power. Labour believes the SNP will be left with no choice but to keep a minority Labour government in office.

But the SNP believes Labour is factually wrong on this. Alex Salmond says the detailed terms of the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act, introduced to prevent either party collapsing the 2010 five-year coalition early, means that the smaller parties now have much more clout.

Salmond told the New Statesman on 24 March that first the SNP would try to “lock Cameron out” of Downing Street by voting against a minority Conservative government Queen’s speech. “The Tories would have to straight effectively for a vote of confidence, usually the Queen’s speech, although it could be otherwise, and we’d be voting against. So if Labour joins us in that pledge, then that’s Cameron locked out.

“Then under the [Fixed-term] Parliament Act that Westminster parliament’s passed but nobody seems to have read, you’d then have a two-week period to form another government – and of course you want to form another government because this might be people’s only chance to form another government.

“One of Labour’s big fibs has been that the party with the most seats forms the government. No, the party that can command a majority in the House of Commons forms the government as Ramsay Macdonald did [in 1924] ... And the Parliament Act reinforced that, because it limits the ability of the incumbent to dictate an early election, and puts more power in the hands of parliament and indeed in the hands of the party,” claimed Salmond.

Dr Catherine Haddon of the Institute of Government, speaking on Newsnight on 17 April, agreed. “Previously votes on the the budget were considered akin to a vote of confidence as was the Queen’s speech. Now they are not formally so under the Fixed-term Parliament Act but whether or not those involved think they are serious enough that the government ought to resign we just don’t know.

“In Scotland under a minority government under Alex Salmond they did lose a budget vote but went back and renegotiated and came back with a revised budget and then passed it second time round.”

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act provides explains two situations which would trigger an early general election:

  • Two-thirds of the Commons votes for it – meaning it is highly unlikely it could happen without the support of Labour and the Conservatives.
  • A motion of no confidence in the government is passed by the Commons. An election must be held within 14 days unless a motion of confidence in the government is passed in the meantime.

The most likely scenario under a minority Labour government is that the SNP would vote for Ed Miliband’s Queen’s speech but then might, for example, refuse to support an emergency budget that will probably follow in June over future funding for Trident or too deep austerity cuts. It may be on Trident that the Conservatives would dig Labour out of the hole and vote with them against the SNP. But if not Trident another issue is bound to arise.

Peter Kellner of YouGov has said that if a prime minister wanted to face down the SNP by threatening to call an early election instead of giving in to their demands he could do so under the new legislation by putting down a no-confidence motion against his own government and instructing his MPs to abstain. He might attract complete ridicule for doing so but it does make it possible for him to threaten to call an election in the face of SNP threats.

But Peter Riddell, director of the Institute of Government, has rightly warned that these are unintended consequences of a piece of legislation designed to prevent an early election in a five-year coalition, not decide who should govern immediately after an election. “If there is another hung parliament after 7 May, virtually all parties will want to avoid invoking the act, and so risking another general election ... The act will be the nuclear option, to be threatened but not used,” he said in a letter to the Times on 11 April.

So while Miliband’s freedom of action may be circumscribed by the new rules of the parliamentary game, the SNP is also boxed in with the added pressure – that if it was to collapse a minority Labour government allowing a Tory government at Westminster it could face paying a heavy political price among its supporters – as happened in 1979.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Alan Travis Home affairs editor, for theguardian.com on Monday 27th April 2015 18.06 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010