Word has it that the Tories will try to declare themselves the winners even if they fail to win a majority in the general election tomorrow. The Constitution however has something else to say about that:
Despite the claims of certain media commentators and aggrieved Conservative politicians at the weekend, there has been no “new rule” dreamt up in the Cabinet Office for the event of a hung parliament. The constitutional position has long been clear: if no party secures an overall majority then Gordon Brown, as the incumbent prime minister, has the constitutional right to remain in office to try to form a government.
Constitutionally, a PM cannot be forced to resign because the opposition believes it has a better mandate to govern. But in practice, whether the PM stays in office and tries to form a government is dependent on the political circumstances in which he finds himself.
Britain’s system is unusual in that the prime minister does not have to resign if his party fails to secure a majority. Until a deal is done he would serve as a caretaker premier, whose powers and authority are limited by the rules governing electoral “purdah”. The constitutional conventions and precedents are designed to provide continuity – to ensure that at no time is the sovereign without a government.
The basic principle is that the government must command the confidence of the Commons. That is not the same as securing an outright majority – merely that no combination of parties can form a majority against it. If the incumbent PM has the confidence of the Commons then he can continue in office.
And this I suspect will be what comes into play on Friday. I still believe that Cameron will command the largest party in the Commons, but will fail to win a majority. I also think Brown and Labour will try to find a solution immediately to keep the Tories out. I’m not convinced they’ll find it – partly because Brown is an unpalatable partner for the Lib Dems (Clegg is known to hate him), partly because it seems highly unlikely that New Labour will agree to dismantle its aggressive, torture-supporting authoritarian state, just because its preferred coalition partner wants it that way. Would David Miliband really be a break from old politics? What about Alan Johnson?
The pressure on Brown from the Murdoch/Mail Axis of Evil will be merciless, the political pressure from the Tories themselves possibly much greater, and the will of the people thoroughly subverted. Cameron will do what it takes to run a minority administration, which through trampling on the Constitution and ignoring electoral reform, will within a short span of time destroy itself. Cameron and the unreconstructed Tories are on the wrong side of history.
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