Hung, drawn or slaughtered? By Philip Johnston

11 Feb 10
PHILIP JOHNSTON | Most people expect Labour to suffer a heavy defeat in the election. But polls show that disillusionment with politicians in general might lead to a hung Parliament

Most people expect Labour to suffer a heavy defeat in the election. But polls show that disillusionment with politicians in general might lead to a hung Parliament

There has been only one year since 1945 when a general election resulted in the defeat of a governing party with a sizeable parliamentary majority and its replacement by another with a working majority. That was 1970, when Edward Heath’s Conservatives secured a majority of 30 seats after toppling Harold Wilson’s Labour government, which had a majority of around 90 seats.

In 1979 and 1997, the last two occasions when the reins of government passed between Labour and the Tories, the governing party had already lost its majority. In 1974, it took two elections for Labour to secure a majority of just three, which quickly evaporated, necessitating a pact with the Liberals to keep the government in office for the full term.

As David Cameron prepares his party for an election campaign that will begin in just a few weeks’ time, he clearly hopes the outcome will be another 1970. His fear – and it is one that has taken a grip on the party – is that it will be another 1974. The fact that a seamless exchange of power of the sort that occurred in 1970 is so rare is itself an indication of the difficulties ahead.

Furthermore, in 1970 the Tories secured their 30 majority with 46% of the vote; yet virtually all the polls are showing the Tories stuck on 40% or less. As Norman Tebbitt, the former Conservative Party chair, noted recently, 40% appears to be a ceiling, not a floor, in support for the party. This would simply not achieve a majority of one, let alone a sufficient lead to secure a working majority.

Despite all the talk of huge amounts of money pumped into marginal seats by Lord Ashcroft, there are not enough of them in England for the Tories to be certain of winning. The reason they have to be found in England is that the Tories will win only two or three seats at most in Scotland. When Margaret Thatcher won in 1979, with a majority of 44, the Tories had 333 seats and 23 of them were in Scotland.

Taking into account boundary changes, the Conservatives currently have a notional 214 seats in a bigger House of Commons with 650 seats. So, to achieve anything like the majorities enjoyed by Heath or Thatcher, Cameron would need to win something like an extra 140 seats – almost all of them in England, although some gains are likely in Wales.

This is a mammoth task. Indeed, it is greater than any in modern electoral history and needs to be achieved, moreover, at a time when the Tories appear to be sliding in the opinion polls. It would be too much to suggest there is despondency in Tory ranks; they still think the country, when push comes to shove, will administer the heave-ho to Gordon Brown and install them in his place. But there is certainly perplexity – MPs and campaign officials are baffled by the narrowing in the polls when it is apparent to them that the Labour government has made such a pig’s ear of everything.

But, of course, what the polls are showing is not that Labour is popular (it isn’t – and the government will lose its majority in May). The main message is that the voters don’t especially want either of the two big parties to win.

It might not turn out like that on the day. The British electorate is remarkably sensitive to the need for strong government, and hung Parliaments are exceptionally rare. There is a good prospect that, as the election campaign gets under way, voters will recognise the dangers of leaving the Commons in the lurch and will pile in behind the Tories. But I would not bet on it. And indeed, for those who might fancy a wager, the bookmakers have slashed the odds on a hung Parliament.

The principal difference between now and 1970 is that there is far greater diversity in British politics. Forty years ago, there were only 12 MPs from other parties apart from the big two. At the last election, there were 92. We have multi-party Westminster politics in a way we have never had before. On the other hand, would a hung Parliament be such a bad thing? The country might well want a government (either a minority administration or a coalition) less interested in overhauling the constitution or re-engineering the nation than just getting on with the job of providing effective administration and a sound economy.

We do not have to wait long to find out.

Philip Johnston is assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph

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