Britain is now in full general election countdown mode – and the polls indicate another hung parliament is the most likely outcome on May 7. Gus O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary, recently reflected on the 2010 coalition negotiations, arguing that things “could be even messier” this May, and that “it could take quite a lot longer next time to actually form a government.”
His comments were a friendly warning about what to expect in terms of post-election processes in the event of another hung parliament, and what to expect of the incumbent prime minister while those processes play out.
Sorting it out
Under standard UK constitutional practice, the transfer of governing authority to a new prime minister is normally mercilessly swift and clear. We generally expect our Westminster general elections to result in clear outcomes: think of Margaret Thatcher’s speedy arrival in Downing Street after Callaghan’s departure in 1979, or Tony Blair strolling into Number 10 just as the removal lorries left the back with John Major’s belongings inside them.
And then there are the elections where an incumbent premier remains in office, happily waving in triumph from a Downing Street window.
But in 2010, it took four days for the parties to agree that there would be a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, during which time Labour began discussions to form a so-called “rainbow coalition” with the Liberal Democrats and assorted smaller and nationalist parties, which was of course ultimately unsuccessful.
Gordon Brown attracted some criticism for remaining in office as prime minister for as long as he did – even although this was the constitutionally correct thing to do. The Cabinet Manual - specially written to guide politicians through the process - made it clear that the Queen could not be embroiled in political decisions about who should become prime minister, because, as a constitutional monarch, such a scenario would be entirely inappropriate.
Only once it was clear that Brown could no longer command the confidence of the House of Commons (the key principle on which Westminster parliamentary government is based) and that Cameron would form a government in his place, did Brown meet with the Queen to offer his resignation.
There was only one precedent for this situation in living memory.
The last hung parliament after a general election arose in February 1974, when Edward Heath temporarily remained as Prime Minister despite the Conservatives’ losing seats and becoming the second-largest party. Heath did not resign until March 4, after confirming that a coalition with the Liberals was impossible, and Harold Wilson became the prime minister of a minority Labour government.
Before that, the last such incident was the aftermath of the December 1923 election, when Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives became the largest party of a hung parliament without the possibility of any governing agreement with the Liberals.
In a piece of remarkable constitutional co-ordination, Baldwin presented a King’s Speech at the state opening of parliament in January 1924 to which the Labour opposition attached a no confidence amendment. That prompted Baldwin’s resignation and facilitated the appointment of Ramsey MacDonald as Britain’s first Labour prime minister.
Constitutional politics in action
There are several possible permutations of party balance that could emerge at the next general election, and each will prompt debate about how David Cameron should behave. Depending on how many seats the Conservatives win, we may be uncertain about whether and for how long Cameron should remain prime minister while negotiations are conducted – particularly if the government being formed does not look likely to include his party.
Although the prime minister must remain in office until it is clear who will replace him in order to ensure continuity of government, such constitutional understandings may not long seem persuasive to the public if coaltion negotiations become protracted.
If, for example, Cameron cannot form another government, but negotiations between the other parties stall – as happened in 2010 – it will again raise the question of exactly when a prime minister in such a position ought to resign. Should a prime minister stay in office only so long as he has a potential chance to govern, or does he have a responsibility to remain as premier to enable a full coalition agreement to be agreed between the other parties? It’s worth remembering that the House of Commons does not meet immediately after a general election anyway – and the process of determining who will be prime minister need not be swift just because the media and the public expect it to be.
Ultimately, the heart of the matter is that the role of a post-election “caretaker” prime minister is poorly understood and articulated. And if, as seems likely, hung parliaments are here to stay, we may need to properly delineate and explain to the public what a prime minister is actually meant to do during post-election negotiations, and what his constitutional role involves.