Opinion

Hung Parliament - learning from the past

15 June 2017 | By Dr Julian Francis

Dr Julian Francis, director of policy and external affairs at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, on a tale that before the election many would have written off as fiction.

Dr Julian Francis

May was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of her demise appeared in all the journals of record and was signed by journalists, pundits, politicians and activists. Corbyn stated it. And Corbyn’s name was good enough for those who called for change. Mrs May was as dead as a doornail.

So, it may come as a surprise to many that I found myself in a position of having been visited by a number of ghosts in the past few days with warnings and advice in equal measure. Chief amongst them was the recently deceased prime minster herself.

Weighed down by the chains of her own making in a political career spanning two decades, she has found herself trapped in a political limbo that neither allows her to more forward or back and so she must just get on with the job.

In her brief visit, she informed me that I would be visited by ghosts of parliaments past, present and future who would shed light on the world in which we find ourselves.

Thus warned, I settled in to watch a few episodes of House of Cards and await my otherworldly visitors.

The first to appear were a pair of Tories from yesteryear, Stanley Baldwin and Edward Heath. Both wailed at the folly of Mrs May’s early election as they both knew the price that was paid for going to the polls before their time.

Fresh to the Conservative leadership, Stanley Baldwin chose to risk a majority of 36 on the issue of tariff reform in 1923. He felt that he needed a mandate from the people to change government policy and felt the time was ripe to deliver a large majority to the government.

The result was a hung parliament with the government losing 86 seats but remaining the largest party in the Commons. Baldwin chose to face the new House but lost a confidence motion and resigned. With the support of the Liberals, Labour formed its first government.

Ted Heath similarly found himself considering the benefits of a snap election in 1974 when he was faced with a second miner’s strike. Heath felt the only way to challenge the miners was a to call an election in the hopes that the nation would rally round the government and ensure it had a large majority.

Using the slogan “Who Governs Britain?” the Conservatives went to the polls and woke up to a hung parliament in which they received more votes but less seats than Labour. Heath tried to form a deal with the Liberals and Ulster Unionists but by Monday it was clear that he could not build a coalition of support and so he resigned. 

Harold Wilson formed a minority government and went to the polls six month later gaining a three-seat majority.

With cries of why did she not pay heed to their follies, the prime ministerial shades faded from view. I did not have to wait long before another ghostly premier came into view.

Jim Callaghan had come to warn me of what life would be like in the new House of Commons as he bore the bitter scares of parliamentary battle upon his soul. When Callaghan became leader of the Labour Party in 1976, it was in a weak position and would lose its slim majority a few months later finding itself in the position of a minority government. To stay in office, Callaghan reached out to the Liberals to secure a confidence and supply agreement called the Lib-Lab pact that gave the government breathing room.

For those who feel that this provides an ideal solution to the problems of a hung parliament, “lucky” Jim holds a warning. The pressure on the government to maintain a majority and the desire of the opposition to engineer a defeat that can trigger a favourable election is such that every vote becomes a life-and-death struggle.

As MPs can only vote in person they will need to be present all the time, day or night. If Callaghan’s experience is anything to go by people will be sleeping in corridors and the pressure will build to such a point that it could lead to heart attacks and physical breakdowns. The political pressure was so high in the late 70s that an MP actually died in the House. 

Hung parliaments encourage political brinksmanship and this can bring out the worst in political operatives who will often seek to win at all costs. This means that the two most important members of the government are now the leader of the Commons and the chief whip as parliamentary management will be key to survival. Expect the Commons to become much livelier in the coming months.

As Callaghan faded, he was replaced by a deathly spectre that came to provide a stark vision of the future. Saying nothing it conjured a glimpse of things to come. The prime minster is now broken and her authority is weak but she has not resigned.

Although there are calls for her to be ousted in a leadership contest, many fear a second election that may see Labour win. Corbyn so far has the psychological advantage and seems to have political momentum. Few are willing to risk again the comforts of office so soon after the last election.

This could mean that Mrs May will stay in Downing Street for the foreseeable future as her opponents fear the alternative and can see no saviour among their ranks who can lead them to victory.

So rather than having the therapeutic lancing of the boil a new leadership could provide, the party will carry on with the bile and poison building up within it as it faces growing pressure from outside due to Labour trying to engineer a defeat in Parliament and EU negotiations opening up old wounds as Brexiteers and Remainers fight for control of the party.

Although this may seem a dire warning of things to come there is a silver lining for our industry.

First, it is politicians that will face the brunt of all this political fighting rather than the public. A weak government will be desperate for allies and will seek to find inspiration from any quarter that can help it recapture the public imagination. Our industry is well placed to provide answers to the challenges that affect people’s lives and really matter to them.

Second, power has shifted from Whitehall to Westminster as the individual MPs now matter more than they have done so for decades. Small numbers of MPs can hold the government hostage and force changes to policy. If we recognise and understand this our industry can have a powerful new tool with which to shape policy creation.

As the Chinese say to curse their enemies, “may you live in interesting times”. Well, these are very interesting times indeed. We are watching history in the making and people will be discussing the results of election of 2017 for years to come.

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