The Conservative party has this week been briefing about the possibility of a Labour government supported by the SNP leading to a constitutional crisis. However, this crisis may be largely of their own making.
Polls currently suggest that the Conservatives will be the largest party in Westminster, both in terms of vote share and seats, albeit by an incredibly narrow margin. This is largely thanks to an apocalyptic drop in support for the Labour party in its Scottish stronghold as voters who voted yes in the recent independence referendum have largely switched to the SNP. The SNP have unequivocally ruled out any kind of deal with the Conservatives and their leader Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly invited Labour leader Ed Milliband to commit to helping her ‘lock out the Conservatives.’ He has so far ruled out a formal coalition, but will almost certainly be at least somewhat reliant on SNP MPs if he wants to become Prime Minister, for example by leading a minority government in a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement. This leaves a situation in which it is likely that the single biggest party will be unable to form a stable government as it will be outnumbered by an Anti-Tory coalition led by Labour and relying primarily on SNP support.
The Conservatives have made the potential ‘chaos’ of a Labour government supported by the SNP the cornerstone of their campaign, stoking up nationalism and distrust on both sides of the border. Whether this potential government would truly be less stable and more extreme than a Conservative group involving UKIP and the DUP, whose health minster resigned this week after linking same sex relationships to child abuse, is arguable. However, that has not stopped politicians and parts of the media from suggesting that a Labour-SNP pact would not only be bad for the country, but that it would be illegitimate.
Claims of illegitimacy stem from the fact that the SNP only stands in Scotland, and so cannot be seen to be influencing policy which only affects voters elsewhere in the UK. This ignores the likelihood that a potential Tory government would require the support of other regional parties, such as the Northern Irish DUP, and that both the Conservatives and UKIP have little support in Scotland. Indeed, John Major’s Conservative government survived as a minority thanks to the support of the Ulster Unionists. This hasn’t stopped Home Secretary Theresa May from claiming that a Labour government with links to the SNP would lead to the biggest constitutional crisis since the abdication of King Edward the VIII.
The comparison with King Edward’s abdication is prescient, as both are based in perception rather than constitutional law. There was no law preventing the British monarch from marrying whoever he liked. Rather, it was thought that the British public would not accept Wallis Simpson as his wife. The UK does not have a single written constitution, therefore the procedure around the forming of the government is governed partly by convention and partly by whatever works. While the leader of the largest party would generally have the first shot at attempting to form a government, it is the person who can command a majority in the House of Commons who will actually do so. Nick Clegg, the deputy Prime Minister and current leader of the Liberal Democrats, has made it clear that he will push hard for a government formed primarily of the largest party, believing this was the only way to ‘ensure the government is legitimate.’ However, polls currently predict that even with the support of the Lib Dems the Conservatives will fall far short of a working majority. If Labour, the SNP, and other potential allies can form a commanding majority block while the Conservatives and their allies cannot, then in strict parliamentary terms they will be a perfectly legitimate government. There is no reason why the second biggest party cannot lead a legitimate government. Indeed, constitutional scholar Vernon Bogdanor labelled Clegg’s position ‘absurd.’
However, it seems that the British public may be being increasingly won over by the rhetoric about the illegitimacy of a government backed by the SNP. A ComRes poll for Newsnight has found that 55% of people think that the next Prime Minister should be the leader of the largest party, compared to just 34% who agreed that it should be the leader of the party which can command the largest group of MP’s including those from smaller parties.
These figures clearly show that, in Tory supporting parts of the UK at least, a Labour government backed in some way by the SNP will find it hard to command popular legitimacy. What is less clear is what the Tory endgame is. If playing on fears of the SNP tail wagging the Labour dog help swing the polls more decisively in the favour of the Conservative Party then it may well turn out to be a successful gambit. However, if Labour remain the party best placed to form a government, even one lacking in complete public legitimacy, the route forward is deeply confused. In the past it would have been possible to call a snap general election, but thanks to the Fixed-terms Parliament Act enacted by the Conservative-led coalition the current parliament must sit for a full five years. In this case, the Conservatives may find themselves hoist by their own petard.
Perhaps more worrying, both for committed unionists and those concerned with a fair democracy, is the implication that democratically elected representatives from one part of the country may be deemed illegitimate by the rest of the country. Months after being urged by politicians from all the unionist parties to stay in the ‘family of nations’ and to make their voice heard from within the UK, Scots are being told that by electing the SNP they are giving up their right to influence the British government. This will likely drive Scots even further toward the SNP, something of an own goal for the Conservative and Unionist Party, and will send a dangerous and threatening message to disenfranchised voters throughout the UK. You can vote for a non-establishment party if you want, but don’t expect it to get anywhere near the levers of power.
Image courtesy of Koala99