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How the general election could produce a constitutional crisis

My Times column on what might happen if the British election prouces a messy result:

had a bad dream. It was April 2016. The country was tumbling into a constitutional crisis, dragging the Queen into a gathering storm in the week of her 90th birthday. The financial markets were hammering the pound and threatening a bond strike as the deficit rose and growth faltered. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said he feared that Britain had become ungovernable.

It had begun with the election. The Conservatives had won the most seats, 290 to Labour’s 260. But with only 26 Lib Dems in the Commons, the Tories were unable to form a workable coalition, and with Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander gone there was no appetite for it anyway, not when David Cameron would have to rely also on Ukip or the Ulster Unionists to get bills through parliament. So Mr Cameron had formed a minority government, but could not carry a Queen’s speech and lost a vote of confidence.

My dream told me that under the rules of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, Ed Miliband had then been asked to try to form a government. Rather than face another election — his party was broke — he negotiated a deal with the 42 Scottish Nationalist and six Plaid Cymru MPs (the Tartan-Plaid pact), whereby they would support him in power. This left him short of a majority, but the Lib Dems under Tim Farron abstained on the ensuing vote of confidence, since they too could not afford to fight another election.

So the minority Labour government limped on indefinitely. John Bercow, by the way, was in his element.

But slowly, inch by inch, the “Fishes” (Salmond and Sturgeon) gnawed at the Union. Every time the Minnowband sat down to negotiate legislation with the Salmond in Westminster, the latter would sigh and say the Sturgeon in Edinburgh had asked for more. Mr Miliband’s popularity in England plummeted with every concession, but Nicola Sturgeon’s in Scotland only grew. So did Leanne Wood’s in Wales, as she extracted concessions too, eroding Labour’s power base there.

The anti-Scottish feeling in England suited Ms Sturgeon just fine. Even in the tribal northeast of England, Labour was crumbling: it lost a Tyneside by-election to Douglas Carswell’s Ukip.

So Mr Miliband could not risk going to the country, which weakened his hand in negotiation. The Fishes had only to threaten to join the increasingly pro-Scottish-independence Tories in a vote of no confidence for Labour to cave in again. The government’s legislative programme now included cancellation of Trident, the comprehensive reversal of welfare, education and trade union reforms, and a date for a second Scottish referendum.

The Tories watched frustrated, comfortably ahead in the opinion polls, now that Boris was leader, and longing for another election, but up against the implacable arithmetic of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act — that only a two-thirds vote for dissolution could bring down a government. They had begun secret talks with the Fishes, but the BBC had got wind of them and scuppered the deal. The Lib Dems were in talks to merge with the Greens.

The crisis came to head when the House of Lords blocked Labour’s legislative programme again and again. There were no Scottish Nationalist peers — as there are not now, the party having refused to appoint any. Labour’s red benches are loaded with passionate unionists. But what really made the peers obstructive was the government having included a bill for the abolition of the Lords, to be replaced by a toothless four-nations-and-six-regions talking shop. We ermined turkeys were not about to vote for Christmas. (The Lords generally cave in to the Commons on everything — but that would change if they were about to be abolished.)

So in my bad dream the government was resorting to the Parliament Act, and ramming through its bills. More and more media commentators were denouncing this as getting horribly closer to dictatorship. There was even growing pressure on Her Majesty to withhold royal assent to measures that broke up the union. The Prince of Wales dared not say or write anything, so felt impotent to take the pressure off his mother. Constitutional lawyers were trying to find ways to force a dissolution of parliament via the Privy Council. The only thing that did not seem likely was a coup, since there were too few troops to carry it out.

Oh, and meanwhile in my dream Greece had fallen out of the euro; Vladimir Putin had fomented a proxy separatist rebellion in the Baltic states by well-equipped troops with insignia-free uniforms; and the Shia-Sunni civil jihad had spread still further. The Miliband government had signed up to a plan in the Paris climate conference of December 2015 to get all our energy by 2020 in the form of sunbeams out of cucumbers.

At this point, I awoke sweating from my feverish nightmare, realised that the election was still to come and remembered that I was a rational optimist. All could still be well. Mr Cameron still looks likely to form a government, minority or coalition, that is not dependent on concessions to the Nationalists. Doesn’t he?

But there is still more than a hint of plausibility about my nightmare. As Peter Kellner, of YouGov, astutely observed as long ago as last September: “The decline in Lib Dem support could leave them with fewer MPs than the combined ranks of the ‘other’ minority party MPs. If that happens, there is a real possibility that the parliamentary politics of the House of Commons will be exceedingly messy.”

And the reluctance of most opposition parties to bring on another election is something that is often forgotten. As Lord (Bernard) Donoughue, who was head of Harold Wilson’s and Jim Callaghan’s policy unit in the 1970s (a weak government kept going by calling the Tories’ legislative bluff) recalled in a recent article in The Financial Times: “Above all, we found that an imminent election was not as attractive to opposition MPs as the blood-seeking press assumed. The Liberal party could not afford another election campaign. Individual MPs did not relish possibly losing their seats. [Each of those aids to government survival will apply after the 2015 election.]”

Since then the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, with its two-thirds requirement for a dissolution and two weeks for the opposition to try governing, has changed the calculation. It reduces everybody’s room for manoeuvre. Minority but long-lasting government now seems highly likely. Let’s hope both main party leaders have people thinking hard about how to make it work.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times