Elections, Prime Ministers and their Causes – Part 2

The 2015 General Election is one of uncertainties. Who will be the largest Party? Who will work with whom? Who will be Prime Minister? Will anyone be able to get enough support to pass that magic number of 326 (half the seat in the House of Commons +1) and form a Government? What does it mean if they can’t?
With all this uncertainty, the possibility of a SECOND General Election this year has been mooted.

This week, I want to look at these questions in a bit of detail, combining the Legal Framework with the Political Reality of #GE15. Over the course of three posts this week, I will examine “What causes a General Election”, “What ends a Prime Minister” and “What Creates a new one”, all through a #GE15 lens.

Having looked at Planned and early General Elections, I want to move on to look at “What Ends a Prime Minister” after an election is over.


I’ve looked at how the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 has changed the way Votes of Confidence effect Parliament and elections. Now, instead of looking at Parliament, attention turns to Government, and what it takes, not so much to create a new government, but to end the old one.

Government and Parliament

What is key here is clearly separating “The Government” and “The Parliament” in our minds. The Parliament is the 650 MPs elected at elections who legislate. The Government is, while drawn from the Parliament, a separate body who govern the country. The fates of both are not intertwined.
It is possible for there to be a new Parliament, but not a new Government. Blair’s Government continued from 1997 – 2008 with 2 elections in-between, each time changing the Parliament. It is also possible for there to be a new Government, but not a new Parliament. There are two ways this can happen. The first way is a ‘change of personnel’, such as the Blair/Brown switch that happened in 2008 – where the people in government change, but the same party holds power. these are simple and (generally) uncontroversial. The second is a much more drastic, and involves a change of party in government mid-way through a Parliament.
When the coalition formed in 2010, it wasn’t expected to last. It wasn’t expected that the Tories would be so dominant and the Liberal Democrats so subservient. It was entirely possible the coalition would collapse. It was conceivable that, had the arithmetic been right, a LAB+LD+OTH coalition could have ousted the Tories – without an election. The government would have changed, but the Parliament wouldn’t have. This is, perhaps, best called a ‘change of control’ transition.

As I discussed, under FTPA, there can only be an election held every 5 years, using the Parliamentary method or the Governmental Method. The Act regulates Parliament, not Government. It does not state when a new government can or cannot be formed. And this could be key in the Post-#GE15 negotiations.
Labour has ruled out a coalition with the SNP – but the SNP has said they will work to keep the Tories out of Government. UKIP’s condition of an EU Referendum in 2015/16 would be too far a policy shift for Labour to manage and keep face (plus the politics of a Labour/UKIP alliance would be disastrous), but is only 1 year earlier than the Tories’ proposed referendum date of Summer 2017. In reality, therefore, it appears this is a Labour+(SNP)+SDLP v Conservative+UKIP dividing line, with the Lib Dems jumping either side of it as they deem fit.
I say “it appears” because, in all the excitement of coalitions and Fixed-Term Parliaments, a basic constitutional principle seems to have fallen by the wayside: How we get a government. I know asking how we get a new government seems an odd question to ask when discussing how to end a Prime Minister (and therefore a government) – but there is a logic here.

Prime Ministers

A Prime Minister is the MP who command the confidence of the House of Commons. This is the Constitutional Law 101 definition of the Prime Minister. In almost every Parliament, that person has been the leader of the party that had a majority after a General Election (or resignation of the previous leader of that party) by virtue of that majority.
It follows from this that when a Prime Minister demonstrably no longer commands the confidence of the House of Commons, they must resign. This condition is one sided – it does not require anybody else to demonstrate that they command the confidence of the House (but we’ll get back to this soon). Therefore, it is for the Prime Minister returning from an election to show that they still have the confidence of the House; not for someone else to show that they have it instead.

But how can we apply this principle to coalitions, especially when Gordon Brown didn’t immediately resign as Prime Minister after the 2010 election and tried to form a government? The reason Brown didn’t immediately resign is because it wasn’t clear he had lost the confidence of the House for some time. It was entirely possible – and indeed for a day or so seemed more likely – that the LibDems were going to come to some agreement with Labour which would have meant that (along with the SDLP, Green and, possibly, SNP seats) would have given them enough seats to command the confidence of the House, allowing Brown (or whoever led the Labour Party after the election) to pass the Prime Ministerial application test and remain in (very wobbly) power.
When it was clear the Labour/LibDem wasn’t going to happen, Brown didn’t have to wait until the coalition we have now turned up. He could not command the confidence of the House of Commons, and so had to resign. Whether or not what we now know as ‘The Coalition’ had emerged, Brown could not remain Prime Minister. It is clear in a #GE15 context, therefore, that if it emerges that Cameron cannot command the confidence of the House, he has a constitutional duty upon him to resign. It would not be like 2010 where Brown (and the country) couldn’t tell which way the wind was blowing; We know who’s teaming up with whom, so it should be easier than before to see the blocs as they form and how strong they are.

It’s the extent to which the parties will work together which could make the life of a post-#GE15 Government difficult – but that’s for Part 3…

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