Page last updated at 10:05 GMT, Wednesday, 28 April 2010 11:05 UK

Post-election timeline: If there's a hung parliament

By Margaret Ryan
BBC News

If no party wins an overall majority on election night, what happens next? Does Gordon Brown pack up and leave No 10 if there are more Tory MPs than Labour MPs? Here's a guide to how things would play out if there is a hung parliament.


It should become clear by early morning on Friday 7 May whether any party has won a majority of MPs in the new Parliament. If that party were to be the Conservatives Gordon Brown would be expected to concede in a phone call to David Cameron, travel to the Palace to resign and move out of Number 10. Mr Cameron would travel to the Palace where the Queen would invite him to form a government, he would then head to Downing Street and get straight down to work on Friday afternoon as the UK Prime Minister.


There are many different scenarios and possible results and few hard and fast rules as to what is going to happen if no single party has enough MPs - 326 - to ensure they can win votes even if all other MPs in Parliament vote against them. But the view of constitutional experts, and past precedents is that if this is the case Gordon Brown, as the incumbent prime minister, will have the right to stay on and try to form an administration. This is even if the Conservatives have the most seats. He does not have to go until it is obvious that he does not command the confidence of Parliament - which would mean being defeated on the Queen's Speech vote, or, if he survived that, a subsequent no confidence motion in the Commons. But exactly how events would unfold can only be speculation at this stage, says Dr Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society's parliament and government programme.


There is no formal deadline for when the government must be formed, but the key moment will be the Queen's Speech on 25 May. The run-up to this is likely to see a round of negotiations between the parties to see who can command confidence in the House of Commons. "I don't think we can conceivably go from 6 May to 25 May with people having no idea of what is going to happen," says Ms Fox. Instead she believes it would be clear within days if there is a possibility of a deal between parties. "That will determine the direction of government," she says. But the finer details of policy might be worked out later. A party without an absolute majority can stay in power by forging an alliance with another party to create a coalition government. Or it may form a minority government with no formal agreements with other parties, and instead try to form majorities in favour of each individual bill as it comes up.

Professor Robert Hazell from the Institute of Government on a hung Parliament.

If the maths means Labour and Lib Dem MPs combined would total more than 325 Mr Brown may start talks with Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg to see if there is a "basis for a deal". David Cameron may decided to do the same. Professor Robert Hazell, from the Institute of Government, says if the Lib Dems hold the balance of power they would in effect set the terms of negotiation between the parties in these first few days. "They will decide with whom they want to negotiate first. They may want to negotiate with both of the major parties simultaneously if they both have roughly equal number of seats." And the Lib Dems will also be able to broadly call the shots in saying whether they are negotiating about supporting a minority government or whether, as part of their terms, they want a coalition government. "All that will hang on the numbers in the new House of Commons." He says the public is used to elections being over in a day or so, but his best guess is that in a hung parliament, negotiations to form a government could take between a week to 10 days. And depending on the maths - say if the Conservatives are just a few MPs short of a majority - they might be able to do a deal with MPs from other parties rather than the Lib Dems or Labour.


Over these few first days, or weeks, the role of the civil servants is likely to be crucial in smoothing talks between the parties.

Paul Eddington as Prime Minister Jim Hacker, and Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey
Civil servants would help smooth negotiations between parties

They would not be allowed to provide policy advice but would be able to show where policy overlaps. Professor Hazell says the civil servants are "very well prepared" to support negotiations between the parties in the event of a hung parliament. Earlier this year, the Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell drew up a document on how civil servants would help with these discussions. In reality, civil servants have long played a part in such discussions, according to Ms Fox. But there is more agreement now on how civil servants could be seconded to parties who are not governing to give details on such matters as economic issues.


Gordon Brown, as the incumbent prime minister, constitutionally has the right to stay on to present the Queen's Speech to the House of Commons, even if he does not lead the largest party and has failed to strike a deal with any others. However, Dr Fox thinks it is "highly unlikely" he would stay on this long if there appeared to be little prospect of him being able to put together a deal. The administration must show it has the confidence of the Commons, but the Queen's Speech does not have to be the deadline for negotiations between parties. The administration may put forward a slimmed down legislative programme which it believes is more likely to gain support. But if it loses the vote on the Queen's Speech this would be seen as a "no-confidence" vote and force its resignation. If the incumbent prime minister is unable to form an administration and resigns or loses a vote on the Queen's Speech, then the leader of the largest opposition party would be expected to be invited to form a government.


If the three parties just cannot reach agreement, then there would be a need for a second election. The incumbent prime minister might be unwilling to have another election so soon after the first one unless he is persuaded by opinion polls he could improve on his party's showing. Parties would also consider the fact that another election would be costly financially. Ms Fox says: "The country would not readily forgive them for forcing a second election. The parties will be mindful of that and a deal will be struck."


Whatever the machinations that would follow an uncertain election result, it is far from clear whether a hung parliament would produce an unstable government. The Conservatives say if no party gains a majority in the Commons, it would "paralyse" the UK's economy and create a political "stitch-up". Mr Clegg is more optimistic, saying it could usher in political reform. Mr Brown prefers to wait and see, saying it is "arrogant" to discuss deals before voting happens. But a hung parliament does not need to be "weak and unstable", says Ms Fox, although it would require a change in mindset for "politicians, the public and media".

House of Commons
In a hung parliament no party has more than half of the votes

Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, embroiled in conflicts with the unions, called an election for 28 February 1974. Labour became the biggest party - with 301 seats - but was 17 short of a Commons majority. The Conservatives took 297 seats (but had the highest share of the vote). The Liberals won 14, meaning that they did not hold the balance of power. Heath stayed in Downing Street for four days, until he realised he could not put a coalition together. He had offered this to Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, who called in return for the Tories to bring in a proportional representation voting system. Heath was unable to make this promise. Heath also offered the Conservative whip to seven Ulster Unionist members of the United Ulster Council - made up of the different unionist parties in Northern Ireland - which had 11 MPs in total. But the Council said the Tory whip would have to be extended to all 11 of its members. Heath was unable to agree to this, as it would mean giving the whip to Democratic Unionist Ian Paisley, who objected to the power-sharing executive for Northern Ireland, which had been established in January 1974. Heath resigned and Harold Wilson's Labour formed a minority government, which lasted until October, when there was another election. What was life like under a hung parliament?

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