Page last updated at 17:09 GMT, Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Inform public about hung Parliament, ex-official says

House of Commons
Some politicians think a hung Parliament is likely

The public is largely confused about what might happen in the event of a hung Parliament, a former head of the civil service has said.

Lord Butler told MPs it was a "popular myth" Gordon Brown would have to resign if Labour failed to secure an overall majority after the general election.

He could stay in office until it was "clear" he did not have the support to continue governing, he argued.

The last election to produce an inconclusive result was in 1974.


However, some politicians believe a hung Parliament after this year's poll - which must be held by June - is a distinct possibility.

The Lib Dems - who some experts believe could hold the balance of power after the election - have said the party with the "clearest public mandate" should have first chance to try and form a government in the event of a hung Parliament.

However, they have not said whether this would apply to the party winning the most Commons seats or the most votes.

Lord Butler told the Justice Select Committee - which is examining the possible implications for government and Parliament of this - people needed to know about the sequence of events that could unfold.

"I think it is the popular myth the prime minister loses office if his party is defeated in a general election. That is not the position.

Can we assume that the civil service is up and ready for this? No
Sir Gus O'Donnell, cabinet secretary

"The convention is that the prime minister before the election remains prime minister until it is clear that he can no longer command a majority in Parliament and that somebody else can."

Lord Butler - principal private secretary to Edward Heath in 1974 when the former Tory premier failed to negotiate an agreement with the Liberal Party to keep him in No 10 - said misconceptions meant there could be a "tremendous fuss" if such a situation arose again.

He said he backed calls for the Cabinet Office to publish a "manual" outlining the constitutional conventions that would apply in such a situation, saying "public education would be valuable".

'Clarity needed'

Sir Gus O'Donnell, the current Cabinet secretary, said there was a need for as "much clarity as possible" about the issue.

The lack of a recent precedent for hung Parliaments meant few civil servants had any experience of dealing with them, he said.

"Can we assume that the civil service is up and ready for this? No."

But he said he was doing a "lot of work for providing for all possible outcomes" after the election.

Constitutional expert Professor Vernon Bogdanor told the committee there had been a "lack of explanation" about what could happen and "the public has a right to know what the position is".

Also appearing, former Cabinet Secretary Lord Turnbull said assumptions a hung Parliament was "not very likely" must be rethought as growing support for smaller parties increased the likelihood of it happening.

It would be useful to have mentally rehearsed a variety of different outcomes because it may be highly desirable to produce an outcome faster than more slowly
Lord Turnbull

He warned of scope for "conflict" between existing constitutional conventions and pressure from "outside forces", such as the financial markets, for a quick outcome.

"It would be useful to have settled a lot of these principles in advance and mentally rehearsed a variety of different outcomes because it may be highly desirable to produce an outcome faster than more slowly," he said.

But Sir Gus said markets would factor in the possibility of a short period of uncertainty after the election if the outcome was positive.

"What the markets will be looking for is the achievement of a government that is stable and can carry through the key decisions needed," he stressed. "If it takes a little bit longer to achieve that stability I think they will be patient."

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