For the second election in a row, it looks like the British people will produce a hung parliament at the May 7 poll. At this stage, it is predicted neither the Conservatives nor Labour will have an overall majority. Each will need to rely on a kaleidoscopic array of minor parties to form a coalition government.
As the home of the Westminster tradition, exported to colonial democracies such as Australia, India and Canada, the British seem to get surprisingly muddled about such a prospect.
This confusion is likely to be compounded by media reports that Labour leader Ed Miliband has sought legal advice on how to remove Prime Minister David Cameron from Downing Street in the event of a hung parliament. Labour is concerned about the perceived value of “incumbency” if Cameron remains in office, while negotiations with the minority parties continue.
Labour is going down this path because of the ongoing confusion about how to manage the transition to a coalition government that occurred after the 2010 general election.
How Brown buckled to media pressure
Four days after the 2010 election, Gordon Brown tendered his resignation as prime minister to the Queen, despite continuing negotiations by both major parties with the Liberal Democrats on forming government.
Brown’s precipitate decision was in response to media frenzy about his “legitimacy” to remain in office until the next government was formed.
This culminated in the tabloid newspapers accusing him of being a “squatter in Downing Street”. Brown’s resignation left the nation without a functioning executive and the Queen without an advisor.
So what should happen after an election when the result of who will form the next government is still unclear?
How the caretaker conventions work
A set of established principles – the caretaker conventions – guide the conduct of the incumbent government.
Caretaker conventions check the power of the executive, when there is no parliament to answer to. The conventions are designed to constrain the power of the government by preventing an outgoing government from locking an incoming government into major new policy, funding commitment or significant appointment.
Applying the conventions allows for a continuity of government until the next government is sworn in. Continuity of government is important because the unexpected can happen, such as a terrorist attack, financial crisis or natural disaster. To leave a country without a functioning government is a worrying precedent.
The business of government can continue, with any urgent or unavoidable decisions being made after consultation and agreement with the opposition. The caretaker provisions provide a framework for an extended period of caretaker government and have done so during other lengthy transitions in comparable Westminster-style countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Lessons from Australia for British leaders
Australians have seen two recent examples of how the caretaker conventions can and should work. Earlier this year, in the aftermath of Queensland’s January 31 state election, then Premier Campbell Newman and his government remained as caretakers for a fortnight until it was clear the Labor opposition had the numbers to form a minority government.
There was an even longer transition period after Australia’s 2010 federal election, while both the caretaker prime minister, Julia Gillard, and the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, negotiated with the independents to form government.
In Britain, Brown’s resignation as prime minister set an unfortunate precedent by caving in to ill-informed media pressure to resign. It looks like the current Labour leader is seeking to compound that precedent by once again seeking to prematurely force a caretaker government from office.
The imposition of hyper-partisan politics into the caretaker period is unfortunate. The professionalism of party machine politics has led to a ruthless approach to maximising political advantage. Conventions continue to exist and be applied only if both sides of politics accept them as shared norms of behaviour.
To overcome this confusion in governance in the UK, a consensus needs to be formulated at the political level on the principles that apply in the caretaker period after election day and when that period ends.
In the meantime, the current prime minister needs to resist reinforcing the precedent to prematurely evacuate Downing Street after the May 7 election. Cameron can and should continue to “squat” until the result is known and it is clear who can command a majority in the House of Commons.