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The leaders of the five main parties in gnome form. (LtoR: Nicola Sturgeon, Ed Miliband, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage) Dominic Lipinski
Letter from London

Four men and a lady: Political deadlock could means days of fraught talks

Forming coalition governments comes natural to Irish politicians, but the same is not true across the water.

COALITION GOVERNMENTS ARE so unusual in the UK that books, documentaries and even a Channel 4 drama have been made about the uneasy Conservative/Lib Dem arrangement of the past five years.

In Ireland, and elsewhere across Europe, we are so used to coalitions that we take it for granted that there will be no government for days, sometimes even weeks, after an election.

In the UK they worry about the impact such situations will have on the markets and the economy, just as stressed senior civil servants did for some five uncertain days back in May 2010. The cabinet secretary who facilitated those talks, Sir Gus O’Donnell, told Sky News yesterday that there is less urgency this time around but that doesn’t mean this all remains highly unusual and uncertain.

The reality of the UK’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system means that only the Tories and Labour can be in a position to form a government after tonight. This is because their support is firmly consolidated in certain parts of the country and both parties command a large number of so-called safe seats.

So, whatever happens, you can be certain that Labour and the Conservatives will return over 250 seats each out of the 650 up for grabs. A party needs 323 to form a majority in the House of Commons.

The battle to gain seats on either side will be in what’s known as ‘marginal constituencies’ where the majorities last time out were as small as a few dozen votes.

The same system means that despite commanding around 15 per cent support in some polls, the wide geographic spread of UKIP voters means that the party will only win, at best, a handful of seats. 

One of the oft-cited advantages of FPTP has been that it provides for strong, stable, single-party government but the increasingly fractured nature of British politics means this is no longer the case. At least for now.

UK Parliament / YouTube

The ruling out game

Five years ago, Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems considered whether to go into government with their very unnatural bedfellows, the Conservatives, or prop up Gordon Brown and Labour, whom the country had clearly had enough of.

But while voters were fed-up with Labour, they did not trust David Cameron enough to think he had detoxified the Tories so as they were no longer viewed as ‘the nasty party’ – a term applied by one of its own, possible future leader Theresa May.

In the end, Cameron and Clegg struck a deal on a formal coalition that has lasted the full term and, though it has been somewhat strained at times, has turned the economy around. Labour would argue it has done so at the expense of lower and middle income people whose living standards have been hammered.

In this election campaign we’ve heard a lot of talk from the party leaders ruling out coalitions or deals with each other. The Conservative leadership have ruled out UKIP. The SNP would never contemplate a deal with their ideological opposites in the Tories and vice versa.

While Ed Miliband and Labour have moved from ruling out a formal coalition with the SNP at the start of the election campaign to ruling out any deal whatsoever with Nicola Sturgeon’s surging political force north of the border.

General Election 2015 campaign - April 16th Ed Miliband has been ruling out any sort of deal with Nicola Sturgeon in recent days. PA Wire / Press Association Images PA Wire / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Lessons from Ireland

Despite being on course to lose up to half their seats, the Lib Dems have painted themselves as the ideal coalition partner for either Labour or the Conservatives. Clegg’s party argues that it can ensure the Tories aren’t as nasty and Labour aren’t as reckless with their spending.

The ‘ruling out each other’ game is familiar to Irish political watchers. A year out from an election here we’ve had Fine Gael telling us they won’t do a deal with Sinn Féin or Fianna Fáil and vice versa. But history tells us that Irish political parties ruling out each other doesn’t actually mean they won’t do a deal after the election.

For the UK parties coalitions are unchartered territory – the outgoing government was the first in the post-war era. However, despite lots of red lines being drawn in recent weeks, the 2010 coalition deal is somewhat instructive.

Channel 4′s excellent ‘Coalition’ drama perfectly captures the internal battle within the Lib Dems between those favourable towards a coalition with the Tories and the likes of party grandee Paddy Ashdown for whom governing with Cameron was unthinkable.

But ultimately the lure of power, the chance to implement some Lib Dem policies, and the cold hard realities of parliamentary numbers won through.

The current crop of political leaders, particularly Cameron and Miliband, will have to come around to this kind of thinking in the coming days if they are to have any chance of governing. Otherwise, they face governing in the minority and the sort of instability that means another election as early as this year.

One thing is certain, days of fraught negotiations and deal-making are in the offing.

Originally published 6 May 2015

Explainer: What you need to know about the election that no one can predict

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