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Will There Be An Early General Election?

Last Updated: Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

Is it the unseasonal heat which has so raised the political temperature?  On Saturday, David Cameron said that he felt “very relaxed” about casual internships – the specific target of Nick Clegg within the last few weeks.  By the next day, the Deputy Prime Minister was reported as denouncing “the death rattle of a right-wing elite”.  A few hours later, Chris Huhne, the Climate Change Secretary, refused to rule out resigning, accusing the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Foreign Secretary of telling “blanket untruths”.  This morning, Liberal Democrat Ministers were said to feel “excluded” by their Conservative counterparts.  What is going on?

Needless to say, the answer has far more to do with next Thursday’s AV referendum poll and the accompanying council elections than last weekend’s blazing weather.  The AV referendum campaign has been a largely negative one.  Unsurprisingly, this has strained some Ministerial tempers.  But the causes of the Government’s rolling spat lie deeper.  The prospect of ditching first past the post was the main inducement for the Liberal Democrats of going into government with the Conservatives.  The polls suggest that it will be kept.  Hence the desperation in the yellow corner.

Some Liberal Democrats claim that Cameron originally promised Clegg to keep a low profile during the AV campaign.  Whatever may have been said, the Prime Minister came recently to realise that a vote for electoral change could spark a Conservative leadership challenge, as furious Tory backbenchers rounded on him for having made a fatal concession to his Coalition partners.  He thus threw his political weight behind the No campaign, and encouraged Tory donors to hurl a lot of money at it, too.  There is speculation that relations between the partners are so poisoned that both should prepare for an early election.  Is one likely?

Before turning to the question, it’s worth trying to gauge the real state of relations between the two parts of Government.  Cameron and Clegg have known from the first that getting the Government through its full term requires a dexterous balancing act.  On the one hand, the two parties must work closely together in Government, melding their Ministers into one common project.  On the other, each leadership must sometimes play to the gallery of its own core supporters, both sets of which have their own anxieties.

Liberal Democrat MPs and councillors are alarmed by their poll slump, mass losses in the coming council elections, and the prospect of losing AV.  Conservative backbenchers are worked up about concessions on policy to their partners over the EU, crime, defence, family policy and human rights.  Some of the Liberal Democrat anger is doubtless genuine.  In particular, Vince Cable has come to close to overstepping the boundaries which establish collective responsibility in government – not over AV, where after all there’s an agreement to differ, but over immigration, where there isn’t.

However, there’s good reason to think that that both Cameron and Clegg are privately keeping calm.  For the Liberal Democrats, an early election would mean annihilation at the ballot box.  For the Conservatives, it would once again entail fighting Labour on the present Parliamentary boundaries.  This requires a poll lead over them of roughly eight per cent if a bare majority is to be won.  Labour won 29 per cent of the vote last May.  At present, it is averaging over 40 per cent.  Some of these points might well melt away during the intensity of an election campaign – which Ed Miliband isn’t ready for – but it strains credulity to suggest that all of them would.

So a snap election would probably produce an outright Labour majority or – perhaps more likely – another hung Parliament.  So from a Tory point of view it’s no use gaining some seats from the yellows only to lose others to the reds.  Furthermore, Cameron has a stable Commons majority and no need to go to the polls.  What convincing reason could he possibly give for calling an election – assuming, of course, that Buckingham Palace would grant him one?  Voters don’t like unnecessary elections and it’s reasonable to suppose that they wouldn’t look kindly on a party which forced one on them.  Finally, a new hung Parliament would almost certainly mean a Labour-led Government: the Conservatives could kiss goodbye to a new marriage in Government with the LibDems if they’d just masterminded a sudden divorce.
Coalitions are unpredictable.  Tory backbenchers could suddenly lose their patience with apparent new concessions to their partners.  A Liberal Democrat MP could challenge Clegg for the leadership.  Most likely of all, the Coalition could be hit by the unexpected – a fresh European bailout crisis, or gridlock with the European Court over votes for prisoners.  True, the matey, heady rose garden politics of Cameron and Clegg’s first press conference have long gone – and, yes, the Government could collapse.  But the Prime Minister and his Deputy, like a celebrity married couple in a TV show from which both stand to gain, have solid reasons for sticking together for the time being, and keeping their cool amidst the April heat.

Paul Goodman

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK FROM CONSERVATIVEHOME

This St George’s Day, it is high time we resolved the “English Question”

 “Imagine if at the next General Election, no party wins an overall majority and a coalition is formed that relies on a majority of MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  England gives another party a majority. Neither of these scenarios is remote or implausible.  Lord Forsyth has written about the first scenario here, while the latter was a possible outcome at the General Election last May and was seen by some as a viable alternative to our present coalition Government.  Both these entirely plausible scenarios illustrate a growing problem.  With more and more matters devolved to Stormont, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, Westminster legislation increasingly affects England only.  Yet all Westminster MPs vote on all legislation.” – Harriet Baldwin MP.  Read more:  http://is.gd/xpnGmC

Has Labour really become a Eurosceptic party?

“Peter Oborne has written a piece for today’s Daily Telegraph asserting that that there has been a seismic shift in Labour’s attitudes towards the European Union in recent weeks, leading it to take “a new and potent position…Has there really been a Damascene conversion on Labour’s part? Or are these machinations merely to try and drive a wedge between the two Coalition parties on the European issue?  Either way, recalling how recently Miliband, Balls, Alexander et al forced the European Constitution Lisbon Treaty on the British people without the referendum they had promised, I find it difficult to subscribe to the idea that they and their Labour colleagues are suddenly all now committed eurosceptics.” Jonathan Isaby. Read more: http://is.gd/2JyU7z

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

“Look. I doubt this will change a single person’s mind. Either you are in thrall to one of the myths, and you’ll vote yes (it is a property of a myth, isn’t it, that repeated assertion of it lends it a potency regardless of its foundation in fact), or you’re, like me, a fan of having the most popular candidate elected by one person one vote, and you’ll vote no. But between now and May 5, for the sake of this statistician’s sanity, if nothing else, could we focus on discussion of the attributes of the AV algorithm? And give all the made-up blarney about which unpopular national figure is more or less likely to benefit from AV a rest? I could have produced another page about the negligible impact of AV on minor parties’ electoral results: take that as a warning! Now go and enjoy the sunshine. And remember to vote No to AV.” Graeme Archer.  Read more: http://is.gd/41nw6a

Why the True Finns’ success could be bad news for UK Taxpayers

“On the face of it, we should be happy that the Finnish voters have woken up to the true meaning of Europe’s most notorious weasel word, solidarity…Nevertheless, one of the major implications of the True Finns’ breakthrough is distinctly worrying for UK taxpayers.  They have been elected on a tidal wave of dissent against the cost of the bailouts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal that was so strong that one of the major parties, the Social Democrats, had to join them in opposition to a Portuguese bailout to stem a loss of support.  And since these two parties are expected to form the bulk of the governing coalition, the inevitable Portuguese bailout which I recently wrote about on ConservativeHome could end up costing Britain more than we had bargained for, if we do not stand firm.” Martin Callanan MEP.  Read more: http://is.gd/ApHKhd

Boris strengthens his team

“Isabel Dedring is to become Deputy Mayor for Transport…Kulveer Ranger has been rewarded for his successful delivery of the cycle hire scheme, increased Oysterisation of the transport network and the promotion of river transport, by being promoted to Director of Environment….Sir Peter Rogers will be joining the Mayoral team to lead on Regeneration, Growth and Enterprise, including Enterprise Zones, as soon as he is able to stand down from his current position as Chief Executive of the London Development Agency…Anthony Browne will be leaving City Hall to join Boris Johnson’s campaign team…This follows the announcement yesterday that Edward Lister, Leader of Wandsworth Council, has been appointed as the Mayor’s Chief of Staff and Deputy Mayor for Planning.” Harry Phibbs. Read more: http://is.gd/yqNL8H

Why Ken Clarke should be made Leader of the House

“My solution to the Ken Clarke problem?  Offer him the leadership of the Commons – a post often been occupied by senior figures nearer the end of their career than the start.  Clarke likes the House, is unknockdownable in it, and would manage Government Commons business with the shrewdness and unflappability of someone who’s seen it all before.  He’d also be very useful to have around when the inevitable struggle comes over that bad idea, Lords reform – and, as the man in charge of the Party’s Democracy Task Force, he’s also run his mind recently over how the Commons should work.  Leading the House would also leave him free to be drafted in for supporting fire on the economy when required.”  Paul Goodman.  Read more: http://is.gd/358omQ

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