David Cameron’s intention to declare victory tomorrow even if he can’t command a majority of the house, forcing Labour to join forces with the SNP to bring him down, takes us into uncharted territory as far as UK politics goes. But there is a recent international precedent for this situation with some striking similarities.
Canada’s political system is similar to the UK’s in many ways – in fact, it’s modelled on it. They have a House of Commons with 308 members, each representing one electoral district and each elected on a first-past-the-post basis. But in some ways it seems like they are further down the line in terms of the evolution of this system. While the SNP looks set to dominate elections in Scotland for the first time, the Bloc Québécois has been doing it for years in Quebec. And while the UK may be looking ahead to years of minority governments and coalitions, the Canadians have been there for a while now. So it seems that Canada might offer a glimpse of the UK’s future.
And the 2008–09 Canadian parliamentary dispute might offer a glimpse of the UK’s immediate future. Following elections in October 2008, the Conservatives formed a minority government. But when the government tried to table its budget six weeks later, a left-leaning coalition led by the Liberal Party, backed by the Bloc Québécois and the New Democratic Party, signalled its intention to hold a vote of no-confidence and bring down the government.
The coalition commanded a majority in the house and the Conservatives would certainly have lost this vote, so they were keen to avoid it. The Prime Minister approached the Governor General – the Queen’s representative in Canada – to grant a prorogation of parliament. This means shutting down parliament for a period of time without dissolving it (which would trigger new elections), and in this situation it would allow the government to temporarily avoid a vote of no-confidence while they tried to find a way to hold onto power more permanently.
According to Wikipedia, the Governor General granted the request amid concern that if she didn’t, and instead allowed vote of no-confidence to go ahead, then:
the Conservative Party would launch a public campaign painting the new government and, by extension, the actions of the Governor General as illegitimate, creating “a crisis of confidence in Canada’s political system.”
Sound familiar? It gets better. After the prorogation was granted, the Conservative Prime Minister went on TV to address the nation and
outlined the steps the government had taken to address the economic crisis and attacked the Liberals for forming a coalition with the Bloc Québécois. [Prime Minister] Harper said: “at a time of global economic instability, Canada’s government must stand unequivocally for keeping the country together. At a time like this, a coalition with the separatists cannot help Canada. And the opposition does not have the democratic right to impose a coalition with the separatists they promised voters would never happen
Did I hear someone say con trick? I have to say I am finding this a bit spooky, almost like the Tories are modelling their approach on what happened in Canada. And why not? In the end the Liberal Party had a change of leadership during the prorogation and agreed to support the Conservative budget, in exchange for some concessions.
Could a hung parliament in the UK pan out like this? There are a number of differences that suggest it might not be an exact parallel.
First, the Canadian dispute arose six weeks after the election when the Conservatives had already been allowed to form a government and take power. I imagine that the dispute in the UK would be more immediate.
Second, while I am not an expert on these matters, I am not sure that the Queen herself would grant a prorogation in the UK case*. According to the Parliament website:
Queen Victoria prorogued Parliament in person regularly between 1837 and 1854, after which she ceased to attend, allegedly because she disliked the ceremony.
This was the last occasion on which the Sovereign prorogued Parliament or gave the Royal Assent in person, and was also the last time the Speaker made a speech at prorogation.
And third, the Canadian situation was resolved when the main opposition changed its leader and agreed to work with the minority government, which in turn agreed significant concessions in its budget. I find it hard to imagine Labour voting for a Tory budget or the Tories making significant concessions to Labour. But then again, we are heading into uncharted territory.
One final extract from Wikipedia gives us an idea of what Canadians thought about all this. A poll just after the prorogation was granted found that
40% of respondents agreed with the statement “The Conservative party does not deserve to continue in government,” while 35% agreed with “The Conservative party deserves to continue in government,” and 25% were “not sure.” On the question “Should the opposition parties get together and topple the Conservative minority government headed by Stephen Harper?”, 41% responded No, 36% Yes, and 23% not sure. If the government was defeated in a no-confidence vote, 37% of respondents would support a coalition of opposition parties taking power, 32% favoured holding a new election, 7% favoured an accord rather than a coalition among opposition parties, and 24% were not sure.
So Canadians thought (by a slim majority) that the Conservatives shouldn’t be in power, but also thought (by a slim majority) that no one should do anything about it. Although if they did do something about it, they should be allowed to take power without another election. So that’s clear then.
* Although today’s Times takes a different line.