The first is the crucial distinction between entering Downing Street and being able to govern. This was one of the big, under-discussed issues in 2010. It was certainly possible to come up with scenarios then under which the Lib Dems could do deals with either Labour or the Conservatives. Both would have generated a majority and enough, therefore, to form a government. But only one (Con-Lib) generated a majority large enough to govern, day-in, day-out, on the run-of-the-mill legislation that is the stuff of government. The other (Lab-Lib and others) generated a bare majority, and had far too many moving parts.
And, as MPs have become increasingly independent-minded, so the size of a majority required to govern increases. Even with a majority of 80-plus, this government has been defeated in the Commons. This applies to a majority government too; you don’t have to be Mystic Meg to see the problems either a Conservative or Labour administration with a majority of 10 would face. But it could be a crucial factor in post-election negotiation.
We all assume the finishing line is around 323 seats (if Sinn Fein do as well as last time, and then don’t take their seats). But there’s little point in crossing the finishing line first if you soon fall back over it. Any deal that can guarantee significantly more than 323 on a regular basis will be prioritised over razor-thin deals.
We can look at the strengths of the parties to tell us how majorities can decrease during a Parliament (beginning from the first meeting to the dissolution):
|General election||Starting majority||Ending majority||Change|
|May 1955||59||51||Down 8|
|October 1959||98||82||Down 16|
|October 1964||5||3||Down 2|
|March 1966||97||63||Down 34|
|June 1970||31||13||Down 18|
|February 1974||-32||-36||Down 4|
|October 1974||4||-17||Down 21|
|May 1979||44||35||Down 9|
|June 1983||143||138||Down 5|
|June 1987||101||86||Down 15|
|April 1992||22||-3||Down 25|
|May 1997||178||179||Up 1|
|June 2001||166||161||Down 5|
|May 2005||66||51||Down 15|
Note that two out of the three largest falls in majority have been after elections which returned a Government with a tiny majority.
Now consider the result of the May 2010 general election. We would have Labour (on 258 seats) and the Liberal Democrats (on 57 seats) having a combined total of 315.
Although there are 650 MPs, there are only 641 voting ones. The Speaker and 3 Deputy Speakers don't vote, and the 5 Sinn Féin MPs choose not to vote. 2 of the Deputy Speakers would come from the Labour/Liberal Democrat benches, giving them 313 of the 641 voting MPs (compared to 305 Conservatives). To get a majority of 1, a grouping would need 321 MPs.
Support from the Greens, Plaid Cymru and all the 13 voting Northern Ireland MPs would bring in 17 additional MPs. There would have to be a lot of juggling to ensure these are kept onside, but assume that a solid deal is made with all of them - the most optimistic outcome for Labour. That gives 330 of the voting MPs, an effective majority of 19.
Majorities decrease over time. One method is via an MP losing/resigning the whip, but there is no law saying that a whipless MP has to vote against their former party. An MP doing a direct defection to another party is another matter - but again, it depends on the losing and receiving party. A Conservative MP who defects to the UK Independence Party might vote with Conservative MPs in a division - one who defects to Labour is much less likely to do so.
The crucial majority-decreasing is via by-elections. So, which by-elections would there have been under a Labour/Liberal Democrat government?
We can say which by-elections would not have happened - those from MPs resigning to stand for Police & Crime Commissioners. Under a Labour/Liberal Democrat government there would not have been the Police Reform & Social Responsibility Act 2011 and therefore no PCCs.
When considering the by-elections I will look at the worst feasible outcome for a Labour/Liberal Democrat government. If I think Labour will hold a seat, then I will say so.
Although Labour won the Corby by-election from the Conservatives in November 2012, I will work on the assumption that - as Governments tend not to gain seats at by-elections - this would be a Conservative hold.
First up is Oldham East & Saddleworth in January 2011. This was a a close marginal in 2010, and the Conservatives last won part of the seat (Littleborough & Saddleworth) at the 1992 general election - the last Conservative victory in Oldham East was the 1955 election. But it is possible that the Conservatives win this (Conservative 306, Labour/Liberal Democrat 310 - by this stage, Barnsley Central's Eric Illsley and Rotherham's Denis MacShane have lost the Labour whip, but let's assume they would generally vote with the Government).
Next up is Barnsley Central in March 2011. Safe Labour - no way they would lose this, even if they were in Government. Conservative 306, Labour/Liberal Democrat 311.
This is followed by Leicester South in May 2011. Again, not one you would expect Labour to lose.
Then there is Inverclyde in June 2011. When I projected the May 2011 Scottish election results onto the Westminster constituencies this came out as a narrow Labour hold. So, we can assume that Labour would still have won this by-election under a Labour/Liberal Democrat government.
Next is Feltham & Heston in December 2011. Yes, this was a Labour hold - but during the Thatcher/Major era this was a marginal, with the Conservatives winning it at the 1983 and 1987 elections. In 2010, it was marginal. So assume that the Conservatives win this (Conservative 307, Labour/Liberal Democrat 310).
If Labour couldn't hold Bradford West in March 2012 when in Opposition, there is no way they would hold it in Government. Conservative 307, Labour/Liberal Democrat 308 - by this point Falkirk's Eric Joyce has lost the Labour whip.
In July 2012 Labour gives MacShane the whip back, but the following months see a couple of deaths of Labour MPs - Croydon North's Malcolm Wicks in September and Middlesbrough's Stuart Bell the following month.
With the assumptions that the Conservatives win the Oldham East & Saddleworth and Feltham & Heston by-elections, then Bell's death would see the Conservatives and Labour/Liberal Democrats tie on 307 MPs each.
Guy Fawkes Night 2012 sees MacShane resign, and with it the Conservatives overtake the Labour/Liberal Democrat government. In this parallel world, there would have been editorials in Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph saying that the Government has lost its right to govern, and there would need to be an election by Christmas. However, Bedfordshire Mid's Nadine Dorries losing the Conservative whip the following day would see the Conservatives and Labour/Liberal Democrats tie again - this time on 306 MPs each.
This shows one of the features of modern politics - as a Parliament continues, it gets more fragmented. Minor parties pick up more seats, MPs lose and resign whips. The Labour/Liberal Democrat government's loss of 7 seats since the Deputy Speakers were chosen does not mean that the Conservatives would have gained 7.
We now come to the end of November 2012, with Labour winning by-elections in Croydon North, Middlesbrough and Rotherham. But what if Labour had been leading the Government at the time and had to worry about an anti-government vote? Well, to be honest, these were quite safe seats, and I expect Labour would have held them if in Government. Conservative 306, Labour/Liberal Democrat 309.
The next by-election is Eastleigh in February 2013, caused by the resignation of the Liberal Democrats' former Energy & Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne. In reality the Liberal Democrats would have held this, but what would have been the worse result for a Labour/Liberal Democrat Government?
On one hand, it would have been the UK Independence Party gaining the seat, showing that they can win by-elections which do not involve a sitting MP defecting. Nothing succeeds like success, and a UKIP that was winning by-elections would be a long-term threat to Labour. However, in the short-term, the worse result for a Labour/Liberal Democrat Government would be the Conservatives' Maria Hutchings winning. Conservative 307, Labour/Liberal Democrat 308.
Next up is a resignation that might not have happened under a Labour/Liberal Democrat Government - that of David Miliband as MP for South Shields. In the parallel world, he could have been Prime Minister of the Labour/Liberal Democrat Government! The May 2013 by-election was comfortably won by Labour.
In May, the Conservatives give Dorries the whip back (Conservative 308, Labour/Liberal Democrat 308), but this is followed by Patrick Mercer, the MP for Newark, resigning the whip. Conservative 307, Labour/Liberal Democrat 308.
This is followed, a few days later, by Mike Hancock, the MP for Portsmouth South, resigned the Liberal Democrat whip (Conservative 307, Labour/Liberal Democrat 307), and in July 2013, David Ward, MP for Bradford East, lost the Liberal Democrat whip (Conservative 307, Labour/Liberal Democrat 306), but had the whip restored in September. Conservative 307, Labour/Liberal Democrat 307.
This brings us to the start of 2014, with the death of Paul Goggins, Labour MP for Wythenshawe & Sale East - which would see the Conservatives and Labour/Liberal Democrats tie on 306 MPs. The by-election the following month was a comfortable hold for Labour, and there is no reason to assume they would lose it if in Government. Conservative 306, Labour/Liberal Democrat 307.
Following his acquittal, April sees Nigel Evans, MP for Ribble Valley (and Laing's predecessor as Deputy Speaker), having the Conservative whip restored. Conservative 307, Labour/Liberal Democrat 307.
In June, the Conservatives win the Newark by-election, caused by Mercer's resignation. Conservative 308, Labour/Liberal Democrat 307.
In September, Jim Dobbin, Labour MP for Heywood & Middleton, dies (Conservative 307, Labour/Liberal Democrat 306), with later that month Mark Reckless, Conservative MP for Rochester & Strood, defecting to UKIP. Conservative 306, Labour/Liberal Democrat 306.
In October, Labour won the Heywood & Middleton by-election, but it was close. The worst outcome for them would have been UKIP winning it.
So, where would we be if there had been a Labour/Liberal Democrat Government after the 2010 election, and the worst case scenario had happened for them in by-elections? For the past 5 months, since Reckless's defection, the Government and the Conservatives would have tied on 306 MPs each. Among the voting MPs, there would now be 29 Others:
- Democratic Unionist Party - 8
- Scottish National Party - 6
- Plaid Cymru - 3
- Social Democratic & Labour Party - 3
- UK Independence Party - 3
- Greens - 1
- Alliance Party of Northern Ireland - 1
- Respect - 1
- Independent Unionist - 1
- Independent Labour - 1
- Independent Liberal Democrat - 1
To have an overall majority of 1, Labour and the Liberal Democrats would need the support of 15 of these 29 (as would the Conservatives). Plaid Cymru, the SDLP, Greens and the 2 Independent ex-Government MPs would provide 9 of these. By this stage, such a Government would have to turn to the DUP or SNP to get a majority.
The most optimistic Conservative could only hope for the backing of 11 MPs (DUP and UKIP).
Although there would have been brief periods (November 2012, June - August 2013, September 2013) where the Conservatives would have more seats than Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined, there does not seem to be any point where the Conservatives - without the Liberal Democrats - would have had enough support to govern.
It seems that a minority Labour/Liberal Democrat Government could have lasted the whole 5 years.