by Robert Hutton | 4:00 PM PST | February 25, 2015
British democracy: It’s a stable, boring affair with brief, polite election campaigns and swift handovers. Or that’s how it used to be. On May 7, all of that could change. Not only is it hard to predict the result, but there could be a number of surprising consequences. Here are seven scenarios that will worry anyone who likes a soothing cup of tea and a quiet life.
Months Without a Government
The 2010 election result left one obvious combination that would produce a stable government: a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. It took just five days to agree on the details. The markets, reassured by a series of deliberately reassuring statements, took it in their stride. Predictions of May’s result suggest neither Labour nor the Tories will be clearly ahead, each needing at least two partners for a parliamentary majority. But apart from the Liberal Democrats, who face losing half their seats, every smaller party has ruled out a coalition. Instead, they propose selling limited support in exchange for specific demands. Britain faces the prospect of two sets of three- or four-way talks as the Tories and Labour seek a deal to let them form a government. In the meantime, the current administration will stay in office, but unable to get very much legislation through Parliament. The only time limit on negotiations is the next general election — in May 2020.
The Government You Get May Not Be Very Stable
While the theoretical threshold for a House of Commons majority is the support of 326 lawmakers, in reality that’s not nearly enough. Both Labour and the Tories have plenty of lawmakers whose support can’t be relied on — as many as 50 each, according to Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University. That means lots of tight votes — and lots of defeats for the government. And the new Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which makes it hard to call an early election, means rebels aren’t constrained by concerns they might bring down the government. The result will be a constant cycle of instability, according to Rob Ford of Manchester University. “Imagine the reaction of the public to a government that can’t even tie its shoelaces,” he says. “All the parties involved are going to lose support, at which point the smaller parties will start to wonder about the wisdom of carrying on.”
Ministers Too Tired to Govern
Those tight votes will take their toll, especially on those at the top of government. Senior British politicians effectively have two more than full-time jobs: running a government department and representing their district. When the government is stable, their load can be eased, by excusing them from votes that aren’t close and by ensuring a family-friendly parliamentary schedule. When the government has a tiny or nonexistent majority, these niceties go out of the window. The opposition runs guerrilla operations, arranging ambushes to win votes. These have the side effect of putting huge strain on ministers, constantly forced to return to London for votes, many late at night. The last minority government in the late 1970s was marked by a series of deaths among Labour lawmakers.
A Referendum on Leaving the EU — Under Labour
Labour’s pitch to businesses that want stability is that, unlike the Conservatives, it won’t hold a referendum on leaving the European Union after an attempt to renegotiate membership terms. But a Labour government with a small or nonexistent majority might be forced into holding a vote, either as the result of reform of the EU as it deals with the debt crisis, or by internal pressure from Labour lawmakers spooked by the threat from the U.K. Independence Party to their own seats. A YouGov Plc poll in September showed more Labour supporters backing a referendum — 45 percent — than opposed — 36 percent. “It’s a fairly unlikely scenario,” says Tom Mludzinski, head of political polling at ComRes. “But in this election, who knows?”
Another Referendum on Scottish Independence
The Scottish National Party is predicted to win more than half Scotland’s U.K. parliamentary seats in May, becoming a key player in power negotiations after the election. A similar performance in next year’s elections to the Scottish Parliament — where the SNP already runs the show — and the pressure to ask the people of Scotland the independence question again may become irresistible. The most recent YouGov poll put the pro-independence camp ahead by 52 percent to 48 percent.
Say Hello to the New Bosses
As Conservative members of Parliament regularly observe in private, David Cameron didn’t win a majority in the 2010 election. It looks like he won’t this time, either. The pressure on him to go after a second failure to beat Labour outright would be immense, even if the Tories remain the largest party. And after 10 years leading the Conservatives, Cameron might be quite happy to leave Parliament and make some money. If Labour doesn’t win, it’s unlikely the party will keep Ed Miliband as leader very long; and if the Liberal Democrats lose half their seats, they may wonder if leader Nick Clegg has outlived his usefulness. That’s assuming he doesn’t lose his own seat in Sheffield, of course. So this time next year, all three parties could have new leaders. Which could mean:
Another Election in 2016
The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act makes it very difficult to call another election unless the big parties agree it’s a good idea. They might do if they both have new leaders who they think will appeal more to the public. So we could go through all this again rather sooner than expected. Another cup of tea, or maybe it’s time for something stronger?