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Dale’s Diary: Miliband no deal pledge is ‘codswallop’; desperate Tories rely on ‘stubby pencil syndrome’

Dale’s Diary: Miliband no deal pledge is ‘codswallop’; desperate Tories rely on ‘stubby pencil syndrome’

🕔05.May 2015

As the General Election staggers on to its end game the exhausted participants are beginning to concentrate on the very strong likelihood that neither of the two main parties will be able to command an overall majority in the House of Commons and will therefore have to strike a deal with someone else in order to govern.

Not that anyone is talking openly about a coalition, a partnership, or even a deal. Ed Miliband has been most insistent that he won’t do a deal with the SNP, the Lib Dems, or indeed with anyone.

This of course is codswallop of the highest order.

When the chips are down, the votes have been counted, and no one has the 320-odd seats needed to form a Government, a deal will indeed be struck because that is the way the grubby business of politics works.

One of the most remarkable things about this election, the most polled in British history, is that support for the Conservatives and Labour has stuck rigidly around the 33 to 34 per cent mark, with UKIP ranging between 14 and 16 per cent. Policy pronouncements have come and gone, promises have been lavished upon the electorate, but the polls simply refuse to budge.

This could change, of course. Opinion pollsters are fond of stating that the results of their surveys are merely ‘snapshots’ of how people would vote if they were going to the polling station on that day. But after so many months of level pegging any significant change in voter sentiment seems most unlikely at this late stage.

Given the finely balanced nature of the contest, even a small increase of one or two per cent in support for the Conservatives or Labour could prove decisive.

David Cameron is pinning his hopes on the “stubby pencil syndrome”, a theory that supposes a significant number of people will not admit publicly to supporting the Conservatives, hence the party’s poor opinion poll ratings, but will happily pick up a pencil in the privacy of the polling booth and vote for the Tory candidate, compounding the deceit later no doubt by breezily announcing to friends that they have voted Labour.

Believe that if you want to, but it seems to me there is a bit of desperation creeping into the Conservative campaign, which let’s not forget was based on the idea that voters, having witnessed Ed Miliband make a fool of himself on television, would opt for safety-first and vote Conservative.

Mr Miliband has not made a fool of himself, although he came close with the Moses-style 10 commandments on a slab of stone in the Downing Street garden plan. Generally speaking, the additional media coverage he has enjoyed appears to have worked in his favour and he looks equally as prime-ministerial as Mr Cameron or Mr Clegg.

If neither Cameron nor Miliband can secure an overall majority, the next best thing is to be the largest party in the Commons, which by convention would give the leader the first chance to form a Government by getting a Queen’s Speech through the House. This will involve discussions with other smaller parties – the dreaded ‘deal’ scenario – and well informed sources have already suggested Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg are ready to extend their partnership, even if not on a formal coalition basis.

Matters will be complicated if the party with the largest number of seats is not the party with most votes, as sometimes happens with the first past the post system. Such an outcome would certainly prompt a bitter row over which party, Labour or Conservative, has the most legitimacy to govern.

But it’s not as if we haven’t been here before. There have been a number of occasions over the past 120 years when the two-party system broke down, leading to coalitions or minority governments. It’s also been the case that a party without the largest number of seats in the Commons has ended up in power, as happened in 1924 when Labour formed its first Government under Ramsay MacDonald without the most seats or votes.

In 1951, Winston Churchill’s Conservatives regained power after defeating Labour under Clement Attlee. More people voted Labour than Conservative – 13.9 million to 12.7 million – but the Tories had 302 MPs to 295 for Labour. Incidentally, the contest turned out to be the final hoorah for the two party system – 48.78 per cent of votes went to Labour and 44.27 per cent to the Conservatives, with the Liberals on 3.7 per cent.

More recently, the first General Election in 1974 saw Labour under Harold Wilson topple Ted Heath’s Conservative government.  More people voted Conservative than Labour – 11.8 million to 11.6 million – but Labour ended up with 301 MPs to 297 for the Tories. Heath attempted to stay in power by offering a deal to the Liberals, who had polled an impressive 19.3 per cent of votes cast. But Jeremy Thorpe turned him down, and Wilson duly moved into Downing Street.

The important lesson to learn from 1974 is that if an election results in no overall majority the Prime Minister of the day must be given the first chance, and the time, to form an administration if there is a reasonable chance of he or she being able to do so.

It has been suggested talks between the parties may drag on for weeks after May 7. I would be surprised if this was the case. Five days maximum to form either a Con-Lib Dem or minority Labour government propped up on an issue by issue basis by the SNP would be my best bet.

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