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Stefan Rousseau/AP
Gordon Brown, right, and Nick Clegg, center, listen to David Cameron, left, during Britain’s second televised election debate, April 22, 2010.

The UK Elections: What Could Happen?

April 28, 2010 03:30 PM
by Denis Cummings
Polls show that there is a strong likelihood that no party will win a majority of Parliament seats in the May 6 U.K. general elections. This scenario, which has not occurred since 1974, opens up many possibilities as to which parties the control of the government and who becomes prime minister.

What Are the Scenarios?

There are three main parties vying for control of Parliament: the Labour Party, which has been in power since 1997, the Conservative Party, which has alternated power with Labour since World War II, and the Liberal Democrats, a traditional third party that has received a boost in popularity following the strong debate performance of leader Nick Clegg.

The emergence of the Lib Dems has made it more difficult for Labour or the Conservatives to win an outright majority of seats. If Labour were to win a majority, then its leader, Gordon Brown, would remain prime minister. If the Conservatives win, then Brown would concede and allow Conservative leader David Cameron to form a government and become prime minister.

If no party wins a majority, then there is a “hung Parliament.” There have been only two hung Parliaments following a general election in British history, in 1929 and 1974. It has also happened several times after by-elections, the last time coming in 1996.

What Happens if There Is a Hung Parliament?

Brown would likely remain prime minister until a new government was formed, though he “may feel under moral pressure to resign” if Labour isn’t the biggest party, according to The Guardian. He would have the chance to form a coalition with another party or parties to reach a majority; this coalition would then take control of the government.

If Brown resigns or loses a vote of confidence, then the Queen would invite whomever she believes has the most confidence of the House of Commons (likely the leader of the largest party) to form a government.

David Pannick explains in The Times of London: “It is far from inconceivable that the Queen’s advisers would have to make a political judgment on evidence that is less than objectively verifiable. … [T]here is a real danger that the Queen would be unable to avoid making a decision that is politically contentious.”

If no coalitions are formed, the party with the most seats can form a minority government and hope to form coalitions on individual pieces of legislation. This occurred after the last hung Parliament in 1974, when Labour leader Harold Wilson became prime minister. Wilson called for a second election months later and won a majority.

A second election could be held this year, though political leaders would be reluctant to hold one due to the cost. “The country would not readily forgive them for forcing a second election,” explained the Hansard Society’s Ruth Fox to the BBC. “The parties will be mindful of that and a deal will be struck.”

What Are the Possibilities for a Coalition?

In all likelihood, if there is a hung Parliament, Clegg and the Lib Dems will decide whether a majority government is formed. Unless Labour and the Conservatives are so close to a majority that they are able to form a coalition with the numerous minor regional parties, either party would need the Lib Dems to reach a majority.

Though Labour is the more natural partner for the left-leaning Lib Dems, Clegg has shown a willingness to negotiate with the Conservatives if they win the most seats, saying that he wants to work with the party with the “strongest mandate.”

With regard to a potential Lib-Labour coalition Clegg has said that he would expect Gordon Brown to resign if Labour finished in third. This would open up the position of prime minister to a number of candidates, including himself, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, and Home Secretary Alan Johnson.

Channel 4 and The Guardian review possibilities for deals to resolve a hung Parliament.

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