Voices: Tory warnings of a ‘coalition of chaos’ in a hung parliament may be absurd – but effective

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Starmer needs to do more to prepare for a hung parliament (Getty Images)
Starmer needs to do more to prepare for a hung parliament (Getty Images)

The last time a minority Labour government was formed after an election was in February 1974. There was no “coalition of chaos” then. There wasn’t even a coalition of stability. Harold Wilson chose to go it alone, presenting Labour’s programme for government in the Queen’s Speech and winning the vote on it in the House of Commons.

I am grateful to the great Peter Kellner, one of my mentors, for reminding me that the Conservatives under Ted Heath abstained in that vote. If they had tried to bring down the new government, they risked an immediate second election, in which they would have been blamed by the voters for being bad losers and in which they might have faced a heavy defeat.

It was only the Scottish National Party’s seven MPs who voted against Wilson’s Queen’s Speech, which is fun, given that the SNP was supposed to be the main component of the “coalition of chaos” when David Cameron used the spectre against Ed Miliband in 2015.

Kellner’s point is an important one, which is that the rules have changed since 2015. Then, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act laid down the law on how a fresh election could be held. Now that the act has been repealed, we have reverted to the rules under which the 1974 government was formed – rules that “put the Tories at a huge tactical disadvantage”, in Kellner’s words.

Wilson didn’t need to do a deal with Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal leader, or the SNP, or anyone else, because as prime minister he could ask for a new election if the Commons voted against his Queen’s Speech. It was helpful to him that Thorpe would not have joined with the Tories in voting against the new government even if Heath had been self-destructive enough to want to – but it was not essential. Once Heath had resigned, having held fruitless talks with Thorpe about changing the voting system, the initiative lay with Wilson and he used it ruthlessly.

Wilson ended the miners’ strike and governed effectively for eight months before using his power as prime minister to call another election, which he won with a majority of three.

So when Sebastian Payne of the Financial Times this week recounted Boris Johnson’s words to him in the spring, saying that the “stark” choice at the next election would be between a sensible One Nation government and “Labour propped up by the SNP”, the prime minister was talking nonsense on two levels.

If the Conservatives were to lose their majority in a general election, they would not be in a good position to stop Keir Starmer becoming prime minister. Even the Democratic Unionist Party, with its uncertain number of MPs after the next election, might be disinclined to keep the Tories in office.

In which case the logic of February 1974 would take hold. The defeated Conservatives would have to allow Starmer to form a government and to present his programme to the Commons. What the SNP and the Liberal Democrats did would not make any difference initially.

For that reason, Starmer would be in a strong position to resist the demands of those two parties for a second independence referendum and proportional representation. He wouldn’t need their votes to form a government: neither the SNP nor the Lib Dems could conceivably allow the Tories to remain in office, even under a new prime minister. For the SNP, anti-Toryism is merely the other side of separatism. For the Lib Dems, rhetorical over-compensation for the legacy of the 2010-15 coalition has made a return to that vale of tears unthinkable.

So Starmer would become prime minister and the Commons would pass his Queen’s Speech. After that, however, things would become more difficult. Wilson avoided bringing contentious legislation to parliament during his eight-month minority administration. It might be that Starmer would be similarly adept at managing crises and preparing for a second election on his own terms, but there are reasons to be sceptical.

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One is that Labour might be some distance away from the safe harbour of a Commons majority. Mainly because the SNP now has so many MPs, the range of outcomes that would produce a hung parliament is wider than in the 1970s. In February 1974, Wilson was only 17 seats away from a majority. At the next election, Starmer could be 60 seats away from a majority and still be prime minister. The idea of a “second hop” election to get Labour over the majority line might not be as plausible as it was in Wilson’s day – and he only just made it (and he resigned, exhausted, 18 months later).

This is why I have argued before that Starmer needs to do more to prepare for a hung parliament. In effect, the choice at the next election is likely to be between a Conservative majority government and a Labour minority one. A Labour majority would require a bigger swing than Tony Blair achieved in 1997 and, although the Conservative Party sometimes seems determined to try to test it, my hypothesis is that such a result would be a black swan.

Although the Tory warning of a “coalition of chaos” is wrong on two levels, there is enough truth to it to make it an effective strategy for the party at the next election. The coalition of chaos charge is wrong because the SNP would not have any leverage in the early days of a Labour minority government, and ridiculous because Johnson is the lord of chaos himself.

But a hung parliament is unpredictable. After the passage of time, the SNP might not be so reluctant to force another general election. It will, after all, be complaining that the Labour government had ignored the previous one, which Nicola Sturgeon had declared was a second referendum on independence.

A lot will depend on the precise numbers of seats. If Labour could command a majority in the Commons with the support of the Lib Dems, for example, a deal that was short of a coalition, sealed with a multi-year review of electoral reform, might be an attractive option for both parties.

As I say, Keir Starmer needs to wargame this now.