Elections, Prime Ministers and their Causes – Part 3

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.

In part 2 we reached a situation where David Cameron could no longer stay Prime Minister, but now we have to face a governmental vacuum. So, “What Creates a New Prime Minister”?


Who, then, could replace Cameron once he resigns? The country cannot be left Prime Minister-less. The Queen (for it is at her pleasure the PM serves) would have to invite someone else to fill the role. According to the definitive guide to such things, the Cabinet Office Manual, that person would be the person “best placed” to command the confidence of the House of Commons. That person, in the current election, is Ed Miliband.
It is important to note that it is not incumbent on Miliband to prove he can command the confidence of the House, merely that he is best placed to do so. In practice, this will be tested when Prime Minister Miliband presents his Queen’s Speech. If that fails to pass (which is a possibility), it will then be clear than he doesn’t command the confidence of the House of Commons and the duty then falls on him to resign as Prime Minister. Who would replace him…it’s hard to tell. It would, theoretically be the (new) leader of the Conservatives – whose Queen’s speech would fail and would have to resign to be replaced by the (new) leader of the Labour party – whose Queen’s Speech would fail…and so on.

All of this is going on without another general election happening, since while the Queen’s Speech is a test of the Prime Minister’s ability to command the Confidence of the House of Commons, as we discussed in Part 1 it is not one of the statutorily defined triggers set-out in the FTPA2011. It then becomes a political calculation for the smaller parties (since the 2 main parties will never support the government of another in peace-time), to decide which side of the fence they come down on.
It would take an MP to table one of the motions quoted above to cause an election and see if the mess sorts itself out – or the House could vote to repeal/amend the FTPA 2011 and we go back Prime Ministers being able to call an election at a time of their choice (though even whether that would happen is a controversial legal proposition).

Bringing all this Together

Attempting to tie all this together then, it is entirely possible that we are in for a confusing and rocky few months after this election. Unlike in 2010, its clear going into the election who’s most likely to side with whom, so when the results come in, the blocs should be easier to make up.
If there are more ‘Anti-Tory’ MP’s (LAB+SNP+GRN+SDLP+RESPECT) on May 8th than ‘Coalition Friendly MPs’ (CON+LD+DUP/UUP) then Cameron’s days as Prime Minister are numbered, and Ed Miliband will eventually be invited to replace him.
However, that could well prove to be the simplest part of the process. Ed would then need to demonstrate that he commanded the confidence of the House of Commons by passing his first Queen’s Speech. He doesn’t need MP’s to just be ‘Anti-Tory’ – he needs them to be ‘Pro-Labour’ as-well. It’s possible that LAB+SNP alone will have enough votes to get Ed into Number 10 – but if the SNP abstain from voting in the Queen’s Speech (which is entirely possible), then it could still fail, meaning Ed might not have enough confidence after all. The SNP’s line that they will “lock out the Tories” isn’t enough in the longer-term; they need to be willing to keep Miliband in for there not to be another General Election.
If they don’t  though, we wouldn’t be bracing ourselves for #GE15.2 quite yet, because there are only 2 ways to hold an early General Election under the Fixed Terms Parliament Act 2011:

  • 434 MP’s vote to hold one.
  • 1/2 of MP’s voting support the motion, “That this House has no confidence in her Majesty’s Government.” and that MP’s do not pass the motion, “That this House has confidence in her Majesty’s Government.” within 14 days of doing so.

Analysing the SNP’s position in all this then, the following is entirely possible:

  • they count AGAINST David Cameron, and therefore would lead to his resignation as PM.
  • ABSTAIN from Miliband’s Queen’s Speech (not wanting to vote against it because of the perception; but not wanting to vote for it because they haven’t got any concessions – which is what Miliband seemed to signal in the TV Debates last week).

They would then have to decide whether to support an election-causing confidence motion. Do they Support the motion, bringing down a Labour government and creating echos of 1979, which they have tried to escape? Do they oppose it, rendering their opposition to the Queen’s Speech a little weaker, and making them look a little uncertain of what they actually want? Or, do they abstain, and risk being made to look missing in action – and risk abetting the collapse of a Labour government, if not abetting it?
The Lib Dems would also have to look at the lay of the land, depending on their numbers. I’ve talked about them being ‘Tory-friendly’, but it’s more the current leadership than the party itself. Whether Nick Clegg is still an MP after May (let alone Lib Dem leader) is still up for discussion – so it’s entirely possible the party my shift to be more pro-Labour, and that may well be enough to see Miliband securely in No.10 until 2020. But even then, that depend on a Lib Dem MP who is sympathetic to Labour – many of whom are unlikely to survive this election – becoming the new leader.

The only thing that’s certain is that the 2015 General Election will not finish when voting does.


See Part 1, “What Causes a General Election”;
And Part 2, “What Ends a Prime Minister”.

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