The predicted results offer many scenarios for Westminster and the next inhabitant of 10 Downing Street
Election night 2010 was extraordinary, and it is still not really over. As dawn broke on 2 May 1997, there was no doubt that Tony Blair would be heading to Downing Street and leading a majority Labour government; but while it was obvious by breakfast time on 7 May 2010 that there would be a hung parliament with no overall majority, the rest of the story was far from clear.
Doubt over the last few results, which are still trickling in, means it remains to be seen what sort of hung parliament we will get. The difference between the Conservatives having 314 and 306 seats is a crucial one: if their numbers manage to tick up to 314, there is really no prospect of forming a non-Conservative government. The combined forces of Labour and Liberal Democrats would still be outnumbered by the Tories, and the prospect of a deal spanning Labour, Lib Dem, SNP, Plaid Cymru and one or more flavours of Northern Ireland MP lacks credibility. The only option would be for Gordon Brown to resign and David Cameron to form a minority government before parliament meets.
However, if the Conservatives fall short in the remaining marginal seats being counted and end up at around 306, then the combined Labour and Lib Dem benches would outnumber them. Though Labour and the Lib Dems would still be short of an outright majority, they could probably govern if the political will were there. The constitutional position is clear: Gordon Brown is entitled to stay in Downing Street and explore his options, even if the situation appears unpromising and the rightwing press is keen to push him out.
Given the political realities, Brown could also give other Labour figures some time to find common ground with the Lib Dems and smaller parties, a process that seemed to be starting as the results were coming in, with Harriet Harman and Peter Mandelson speaking out about electoral reform and “progressive” politics.
The chance of getting electoral reform may be a distant one, but it is the best on offer.
The surprisingly bad results for the Lib Dems may well discredit Nick Clegg’s confrontational approach towards Labour. But the leader and the party would need to find some loopholes fast in their previous talk of a party with a clear lead in votes and seats having a mandate.
There is no real need to hurry. The Queen’s speech is not until 25 May, and government can continue to tick along in election purdah mode for a couple more weeks. A transition period is perfectly normal practice in most other democracies, and the world will not come to an end if there is no quick outcome.
Whatever the result, there will probably be discreet talks about how to organise the formation of the government to minimise the potential for controversy around the Queen’s role in the process, and probably also to provide reassurance if the markets have serious wobbles (although it is open to the Conservatives to play hardball).
A consideration that will loom rapidly is the possibility of a second election, later in 2010 or in 2011. A minority Conservative government would find this attractive, and probably face no constitutional problem in calling another election. A tenuous Lib-Lab coalition, on the other hand, would want to try to run for longer, to make sure that electoral reform happens.
While British precedents suggest that a second election would probably be won by the Conservatives with an overall majority, there are no certainties, and a minority government would probably be unable to remap the constituencies to its own advantage, as a majority Conservative government would do.
The British constitution gives considerable advantages to an incumbent that should not be given up lightly. While the decision-making work of government is care and maintenance only, the central institutions of No 10 and the Cabinet Office can be used to prepare a Queen’s speech agenda with which to face parliament. And, if necessary, they can work on coalition deals on policy or personnel – just as they would do on an intra-party basis for a re-elected majority government.