By Russell Bruce
Within hours of Miliband dropping his no coalition, no deal with the SNP bombshell, his colleagues were explaining to the media that, of course, they would talk to the SNP.
Andy Burnham on BBC Five Live was explicit “Of course – parties talk in the House of Commons about government business, that’s what happens. All parties talk.” Caroline Flint and Hillary Benn have also made clear there would be talks with the SNP, undermining their leader.
Meanwhile, Miliband up in Glasgow, having already dug a hole, was now down a pit shaft and fracking his way towards the centre of the earth. He meant what he said, it was a point of principle, no less. That could be a problem for his leadership if the Tories cannot form a government.
Another two of Miliband’s senior colleagues, Harriet Harman and Angela Eagle, added to the ‘we will talk to the SNP” chorus, as has former Labour First Minster, Henry McLeish.
Fixed Term Parliament Act
There are two scenarios. Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA) there is a limited amount of time for a government to be formed or a new election has to be called. No party in their right mind would want to be responsible for that. Labour would be the ones to carry the can and responsibility for another election.
The electorate would punish Labour in a rerun, knowing the SNP had held out the possibility of enabling Labour to take power. And it is not just the SNP. Sturgeon has forged a progressive alliance with the Greens and Plaid who would bring 4- 6 additional seats to add to the final tally of SNP seats.
The second scenario – Miliband is told by his colleagues, “fine you have made this a point of principle, but the rest of us did not. We can do a deal with the SNP and the Progressive Alliance”. Miliband exits stage right.
A third, non-possibility, is to repeal or amend the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Problem with this is there has to be a government in the first place and repeal would not be in the interest of a minority government, as is actually protects them if they lose votes in parliament.
The benefit of FTPA is a government can lose on individual votes, but an election can only be called if there is a vote with a two-thirds majority in favour of dissolution. Or, the government loses a confidence vote or a no confidence vote succeeds, in which case FTPA has one final twist. There is a period of 14 days for a new, or the same government to be reinstated.
The Fixed Term Parliament Act pretty well ensures there will not be another quick election. That was what it was designed to do, so that the 2010/15 Conservative/LibDem coalition was virtually guaranteed a full 5 year term.
Miliband pushed around by the Tories
There has been a lot of talk about Labour forming a minority administration, as the SNP did in 2007. Holyrood and Westminster are very different parliaments and the Fixed Term Parliament Act has created a very different playing field and a bundle of complications.
The Queen’s speech is scheduled for 27th May. That means the parties and MPs that have been elected need to start talking and the arithmetic has to indicate very clearly who is able to form a government. That’s 19 days to achieve a deal and make sure the legislation set out in the Queen’s speech will get through without a vote or amendments. The SNP have said they would not vote against a Labour Queen’s speech.
Any whiff of a vote against, or a significant amendment and the Queen will not turn up on 27th May. FTPA changed everything and the Queen, on advice and through a Palace spokesman, has made clear that there has to be a stable and certain government outcome.
All the indications are still pointing to a hung parliament. The two main parties then start trying to build support for an agreement that will put one of them in power. Everybody and the dogs know the SNP will not support the formation of another Conservative led government.
Unless Cameron can find enough support elsewhere he is toast and Miliband gets to try – and only then. The incumbent prime minster gets to stay until it is clear who will most likely lead the next government.
Miliband has been pushed by the Tories for months to rule out a deal with the SNP, with support from Scottish Labour branch office, Well, they have been getting along so well in the last couple of years why would they not agree on this.
One of the first rules of politics is – never let your opponents define your narrative. Miliband has opened the gate to the Tory end game. They will seek to push the line that Miliband has thrown in the towel because he will not talk to the SNP, set to be the third largest political party at Westminster.
Polls continue to suggest the Tories will lose seats to Labour and pick up a few from the Lib Dems, but still have less seats than they did in the last parliament.
This is about a small number of English marginal seats where the Tories will push the line that only they can provide stable government. The Tories’ end game strategy is to increase their chance of holding on to more seats than expected. Narrow the gap enough and another Lib Dem coalition could just about be pulled from the hat. Nick Clegg has said he will talk to the largest party first and that still looks to be the Tories. This is Cameron’s big gambol and Miliband has just given him his Queen card.
The timetable for the Queen’s speech leaves 19 days to turn the arithmetic into a convincing agreement and produce the speech for the Queen to deliver on 27th May. There will not be a Queen’s speech until it is clear there is a leader able to command the support of a majority of the MPs in the new House of Commons.
Since the Second World War, there have been few instances of a government losing a major act. It became the understanding that a government had three options if it did – reverse the decision, call a vote of confidence or resign.
The last occasion was Thatcher’s defeat on the Shops Bill 1986. The government assured parliament that they would not attempt to reintroduce it and the matter was settled without a vote of confidence.
Labour can technically form a minority government if they can get the support of enough MPs to get a Queen’s speech through. Westminster is not the same as Holyrood. In 2007 the SNP formed a minority government as the largest party, by one, in a parliament elected by proportional representation.
The Labour party is expected to come second and would face questions of legitimacy without clear agreements it had the support of a majority in the Commons. The country, having decided, will expect their elected representatives to get together and sort things out. Miliband refusing to talk to the SNP means he is prepared to ostracise Scotland for political objectives lost in a room of smoke and mirrors.
Miliband is overlooking the fact that the Conservatives could also form a minority government, but they face the same requirement to come up with agreements that would satisfy the Palace.
Let’s assume Cameron cannot put the numbers together. Miliband calls the Palace.
Miliband Hello. I am ready to form and lead a Labour government. Could you inform Her Majesty?
Palace Do you have signed agreements to prove you can command a majority?
Miliband Well no, I won’t talk to the SNP. They want to break up the United Kingdom.
Palace The First Minister seems open to discussion of an arrangement that would make you Prime Minster
Miliband But it is a point of principle.
Palace We like a man with principles here. However, we need a government and you need to engage in talks to get agreements before Her Majesty can deliver a Queen’s speech with your legislative programme.
Miliband Jim Murphy has been doing some research and tells me Ramsay Macdonald formed a minority government in 1923 in a hung parliament in which Labour had only 191 seats.
Palace This is not 1923 Mr Miliband. Macdonald’s government only lasted nine months and Her Majesty would hope for rather better. Arrangements have changed over the years. I suggest you read the Fixed Term Parliament Act introduced by the last government. Talk to First Minister Sturgeon, she is after all leader of the third largest party. I am sure she won’t bite.
Miliband This is worse than having to talk to brother David these days.
Palace It is for you to decide Mr Miliband. Time marches on so I would not leave it too long as I am being told the First Minster’s office is on the other line.
Why Miliband is a fool playing the English card
He is playing the EVEL game just as the Tories are. Understandably as England accounts for 80% of the electorate, he needs to be aware of sentiment south of the Border, but he has missed a golden opportunity to be consensual in bringing the nations of the UK together in the wake of the referendum.
If, as the polls are indicating and Labour strategists are conceding Labour has lost 75% of their Scottish seats, his mandate will rest on being second in England. Miliband is hanging on a shoogly peg when the SNP have held out the hand of support and a constructive role in forming a UK wide supported government. This is why the Palace is so concerned.
Section 2,9 of the 2011 Cabinet Manual includes the following-
“In modern times the convention has been that the Sovereign should not be drawn into party politics, and if there is doubt it is the responsibility of those involved in the political process, and in particular the parties represented in Parliament, to seek to determine and communicate clearly to the Sovereign who is best placed to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons.”
Note ‘parties’ in the highlighted section above. The Queen will expect the third largest party to communicate their position and would be concerned that Miliband’s refusal to talk to the SNP actually undermines the Union. In inviting Miliband to form a minority government without having the SNP involved, in some way, the Queen have been drawn into the political arena and could be seen to have snubbed Scotland.