As the UK election approaches, with the prospect of no clear majority, let’s think a bit about what happens on May 7. Unaccustomed to such situations, people in the UK refer to it as a hung Parliament, a term that suggests political immobility. Canadians, who have had considerable such experience at the federal level refer to it as a minority government, a term that suggests getting on with the job of governing, regardless of whether the party in power has a majority in the House of Commons.
In my recent public management exam, I asked students to speculate about possible political alignments at Westminster as well as what the UK Civil Service should be doing to prepare for the different scenarios. The latter I put in terms of UK Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell consulting Canadian Cabinet Secretary Wayne Wouters.
Regarding political alignments, the issue seems to be how close either Labour or the Conservatives comes to a majority and which of the smaller parties either can convince to support it.
Will the Liberal Democrats play the role of unique king-maker, in that they alone with Labour or the Conservatives constitute a majority? This appears to be what the commentators I have read are suggesting. If this is the case, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has to choose between a tired party and discredited leader with which it has greater ideological affinity or a rejuvenated party with a fresh leader but a strange ideological bedfellowship.
There might be another possibility, however, which is that either Labour or the Conservatives could get close enough to a majority that the support of one or more of the smaller parties (Scottish Nationalist, Welsh Nationalist, etc.) would be sufficient. Then the question would be whether either the Conservatives or Labour could offer these parties enough (for example increased devolution for the Scottish and/or Welsh Nationalists) to get their support.
If these scenarios start to play out, we will see an interruption to the British tradition of a 24-hour transition of power. Gordon Brown may be remaining in Ten Downing albeit with his bags packed as intense discussions go on among the parties as to which coalition can constitute a majority.
Like Canadian Governors General, the Queen, for the first time in her long monarchy, may actually have to make a decision with political ramifications. Thinking back in British history, the most recent precedent I can recall was King George VI’s momentous decision in May 1940, taken after considerable consultation, to call upon Winston Churchill rather than Lord Halifax to succeed Neville Chamberlain.
What should the UK Civil Service be doing now? First and foremost, it should be analyzing in great detail the platform of every party, so that it is in a position to effectively assist whatever coalition takes power after the election. So for example, it should be anticipating policies of a Conservative minority government supported by the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, not just the policies of Labour supported by the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives supported by the Liberal Democrats.
Looking back to Canadian precedent, the most unprepared public service I can think of was the Ontario public service in 1990, which thought it most unlikely the NDP would be elected with a majority, and so did not fully prepare for that eventuality. Let’s hope that Sir Gus and his colleagues do a better job and are ready for all the permutations and combinations of coalitions that could emerge next Friday morning. That will be the real test of their professionalism.