Page last updated at 12:54 GMT, Friday, 12 February 2010

Hung parliaments of the past

By Robert Orchard
BBC Radio 4's Hung, Drawn and Thwarted

It is the morning after the election night before. The People have spoken, but what did they say?

Ted Heath on the campaign trail in 1974
In the end Ted Heath did not get enough support in 1974

Only one thing seems clear as the final results straggle in throughout Friday: Westminster is waking up to its first hung parliament since February 1974...

With the opinion polls tightening, that is an outcome many politicians and pundits are now predicting could happen, given the way our electoral system works.

And it is an outcome neither the People, nor the parties, nor even the Palace seem very prepared for.

In that February 1974 election, the Tory Prime Minister, Ted Heath, tried to face down the threat of a miners' strike and industrial chaos in a snap election, asking the voters: "Who governs Britain?" He received the dusty answer: "Not you!"

No party won a clear majority. The Conservatives had the most votes - just, but Harold Wilson's Labour Party had four more seats. The Liberals had their best result in votes for decades, winning nearly 20% of the total, but with only 14 MPs to show for it.

'Dirty weekend'

Usually, within hours of a British prime minister being defeated at an election, the removals van arrives at the back door of Number Ten.

But it does not have to be like that. The incumbent PM can, theoretically, stay in power until he is defeated in the Commons.

Will you tell that boss of ours to stop messing about. He has lost an election and he should leave Downing Street
Tory activist to Ken Clarke in 1974

Ted Heath chose not to resign at once, having cleared this with Buckingham Palace. Instead he spent what Harold Wilson called the "longest dirty weekend" trying, and failing, to agree a coalition with Jeremy Thorpe's Liberal Party to stay in power.

Many Conservatives were appalled. As a junior whip at the time, Ken Clarke recalls having to ring round party activists to canvass their views.

One response stuck in his memory: "Will you tell that boss of ours to stop messing about. He has lost an election and he should leave Downing Street."

There was unease in Liberal ranks too. David now Lord Steel was the party's chief whip and headed to London to meet Jeremy Thorpe with the warnings of one Liberal activist ringing in his ears: "Don't you dare come back as a minister in Mr Heath's government."

Discreet strolls

The constitutional role of the sovereign was also being considered. Ted Heath's Private Secretary, Robert now Lord Armstrong, lifts the veil on discussions with the Queen's private secretary and the cabinet secretary - including some very discreet strolls in St James's Park - about how to keep Her Majesty out of politics.

The unwritten British Constitution remains shrouded in mystery so the Queen's reserve powers - to grant, or refuse, a dissolution of parliament and to appoint a prime minister - are little understood.

Jim Callaghan in 1976
When Labour's majority vanished, Callaghan turned to the Liberals

Buckingham Palace declined to answer questions on what might happen in a hung parliament though it is understood that Whitehall is updating guidelines on how to avert a constitutional crisis.

Efforts to reach a deal between Ted Heath and Jeremy Thorpe finally collapsed on the Monday.

The PM resigned that evening, and Harold Wilson formed a minority Labour government which limped along until a second election in October, when he won a tiny overall majority.

Limited influence

Three years later, a new Labour leader and prime minister, James Callaghan, found that majority had vanished and - to avoid defeat in a No Confidence vote - he turned to the new Liberal leader, David Steel.

The two men agreed the Lib-Lab Pact, which ran for 16 months. Liberal MPs supported the government in key votes in return for regular consultation but limited influence over its policy and legislation.

The more venal amongst them actually held the government to ransom
Andrew MacKay
Deputy chief whip under John Major

Labour's Bernard - now Lord - Donoughue was an adviser to Jim Callaghan. He tells me he is amazed how little the Liberals asked for, but David Steel defends the deal, saying it did his party long-term good and the country short-term good.

Twenty years later, John Major saw his slender Tory majority disappear. The government's deputy chief whip at the time, Andrew Mackay, bitterly condemned some of his own colleagues for trying to sell their votes.

"The more venal amongst them actually held the government to ransom and I have examples of people making demands which - if it was in the commercial world - would probably lead to them being behind bars."

But why is another hung parliament looking increasingly possible?

The doyen of electoral analysts, David Butler of Nuffield College, Oxford says our electoral system is now heavily biased towards Labour, with the Tories needing to be 10 or 11 points ahead in votes to win an overall majority, assuming an even swing.

Odds increasing

Also, the Lib Dems and "minor" parties could hold nearly 100 seats at the next election, making it harder for the Conservatives or Labour to win an overall majority.

Shadow business secretary, and former chancellor, Ken Clarke thinks a hung parliament would be a disaster at a time of such economic instability, but concedes it is getting more likely.

"Yes, I think we are nearly into genuine three-party politics. The bigger the non-Conservative/Labour representation, the odds in favour of a hung parliament must keep increasing."

If the alternative vote were on offer... if legislation was agreed, that is certainly something to which we should give the most serious consideration
Sir Menzies Campbell
Former Lib Dem leader

And if no party does win the next election outright, what is likely to happen? No-one is talking about coalition, and the Lib Dems shy away from revealing their hand.

The nearest they have got is leader Nick Clegg's ambiguous statement that "the party with the clearest mandate would have the first right to seek to govern"… though he studiously avoids saying if that means most MPs or most votes.

The former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell says it is hard to see his party offering support to a Labour government that had just lost, or to a Tory party that refused the constitutional reform the Lib Dems are so keen on.

But, intriguingly, on Gordon Brown's 11th hour conversion to limited electoral reform with the alternative vote, Sir Ming said: "If the alternative vote were on offer, and by that I don't mean a referendum or a Speaker's Commission but if legislation was agreed, that is certainly something to which we should give the most serious consideration."

And Sir Ming is not alone in criticising the expectation of an instant handover of power on the Friday after an election, when the outcome may be an uncertain one.

Conservative Andrew Mackay, agrees: "All of them will be dog-tired and exhausted and then, immediately, without sleep, to decide what to do isn't in the national interest. This country can run without a government for a week or so."

Mr Mackay was until recently David Cameron's political and parliamentary adviser.

He thinks that, in a hung parliament where the Tories were the largest party, his leader's strategy would be to form a minority government, set out a programme to tackle the economic crisis, and challenge the other parties to back him or vote him down with the prospect of asking the Queen to dissolve parliament for another election if he were defeated on a crucial vote.

The Conservatives vehemently oppose the alternative vote, arguing that the current first past the post voting system "delivers clear, clean results" even if it does currently seem to work against them.

But what if a minority Tory government called an early second election which produced another hung parliament? Then all bets might be off.

Hung, Drawn and Thwarted will be aired at 2245 GMT, Sunday 14 and 21 February on BBC Radio 4.

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