CLUTCHING AT CONSTITUTIONAL STRAWS

An especially inspired sequence in the landmark 90s satire series ‘The Day Today’ featured Steve Coogan as a historian urging viewers to throw out the history books when video surfaced of PM John Major having a fight with the Queen; it was an unprecedented constitutional crisis that the news programme presented by Chris Morris responded to by cutting to a pre-prepared film assuring the Great British public everything was going to be alright. A montage of the kind of clichéd images of Albion once reserved for party political broadcasts by the Tories followed, with the addition of a uniformed PC sharing a spliff with a black reveller at the Notting Hill Carnival.

At times of actual constitutional crises, the history books aren’t so much thrown out as dug up. The uncertain state of affairs Theresa May is currently doing her best to turn a blind eye to as she carries on regardless isn’t necessarily unprecedented, though it’s been a while since we experienced this kind of mess. Yes, we had similar situations in 1974 and 2010, though both scenarios were resolved with the incumbent Prime Minister standing down; this is different, in that May has decided to stay put and labours under the misapprehension she will govern the country for the next five years. It’s possible she could stagger on with a minority Government as the Labour Party did from 1974-79, too fearful of calling another Election in the next few months; but the postponement of the Queen’s Speech suggests her desperation to hang on by using the crutch of the Brexit negotiations to justify her position is something new.

Theresa May went through the motions by dropping in for a chat with Her Majesty on Friday, but the haste with which she did so – in contrast to Ted Heath and Gordon Brown in 1974 and 2010 respectively, who both spent days contemplating coalitions – was another indication of her refusal to accept the reality of the situation; she simply acted as if she’d achieved a majority and it was business as usual. Her behaviour certainly contrasts with one of her Tory PM predecessors, Stanley Baldwin.

The result of the 1923 General Election saw the incumbent Conservative administration of Baldwin finish with the highest number of seats (268), but a long way from achieving a majority. Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour was in second place to the Tories with 191 seats while Herbert Henry Asquith’s Liberals ran a close third with 158. The age of three party politics was writ large back then; 1923 was the last occasion in which a third party won over 100 seats. Stanley Baldwin had succeeded Andrew Bonar Law as PM seven months previously, but sought his own mandate when he could easily have waited another four years. Sound familiar?

Baldwin’s gamble backfired and when Asquith offered tacit support to MacDonald (assuming Labour wouldn’t last long as the governing party, thus allowing the Liberals back in), Baldwin had the decency to fall on his sword after Parliament reconvened in January 1924 (the Election had been held in December), following the rejection of the King’s Speech. George V then invited MacDonald to form a minority administration. This first Labour Government only lasted ten months, defeated in the Commons on a motion of no confidence, the same action that brought down Baldwin; but when Ramsay MacDonald had taken charge, he didn’t have to form a coalition to make up the numbers or prove he had a functional majority. Interesting.

Five years later, Ramsay MacDonald was back in Downing Street; this time round, Labour had won a plurality of seats (287 to the Tories’ 260), despite having a lower share of the vote than Baldwin’s party and being some distance from having a majority. Again, the Liberals – this time with Lloyd George at the helm and boasting 59 seats – held the balance of power and once more supported Labour. Baldwin, already under immense pressure to quit by the powerful press barons of the day, Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, decided enough was enough and resigned as PM, though he hung on as Tory leader and even returned to No.10 six years later, eventually handing over the reins of power to Neville Chamberlain in 1937. Parliamentarians certainly knew the meaning of staying power then.

Yes, these examples are now so far back in time that one would have to be well over 100 to remember them, but they show how nothing is cut and dried when even the largest party in the Commons fails to reach a majority. In his book, ‘English Public Law’, Professor David Feldman is quoted as saying ‘If there is a Hung Parliament…the monarch invites first the incumbent Prime Minister to continue in office; if (they) are unable to do so, then the leader of the largest opposition party is appointed Prime Minister’. Those are the rules of the game and ones that all party leaders should be aware of before they embark upon an Election campaign.

If this is the system Parliament is determined to retain, then Theresa May can’t complain when finishing with the greatest number of seats still means she can’t command a majority and faces potential defeat should Labour and its ideological allies reject her delayed Queen’s Speech. If May fails to get her Queen’s Speech through Parliament, we could still end up with Jeremy Corbyn as PM, regardless of the numbers, and Labour wouldn’t have to enter into formal coalition with any other party for that to happen. It ain’t over yet, then.

© The Editor

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