Opinion poll raises spectre of hung British parliament

November 23, 2009

OUKTP-UK-BRITAIN-BROWN-TAXESThe latest opinion poll in Britain showing the opposition Conservatives six points ahead of the ruling Labour party has raised the possibility of a hung parliament with no one party having an overall majority and a return to the kind of political uncertainty not seen since the 1970s.

Kenneth Clarke, the Conservatives’ business spokesman, said earlier this month that a hung parliament at this point in the economic cycle would be a disaster, an assertion his boss David Cameron was quick to try to play down after the latest survey.

The fact is that a landslide Conservative victory, which at one point had appeared inevitable with polls showing Cameron’s party 20 points ahead, now looks far less likely after Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s best opinion poll showing in almost a year.

The Ipsos MORI survey in the Observer newspaper showed Labour on 31 percent, the Conservatives on 37 percent and the Liberal Democrats on 17 percent. The last British election to deliver a hung parliament was called in February 1974 by Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath. His decision to call a snap poll in the face of labour unrest and economic turmoil disastrously backfired. A second election in October 1974 allowed Labour’s Harold Wilson to turn a minority government into a small working majority.

The fresh glimmer of hope for Labour came against a backdrop of confidence in economic recovery, a Labour by-election victory and signs the Conservatives were struggling to win over floating voters. Labour, in power since 1997, has suffered from the longest recession on record, a scandal over lawmakers’ expenses and military losses in Afghanistan. A general election must be held by June 3. 

“I do think that in the middle of an acute national crisis a hung parliament would be one of the biggest disasters we could suffer … that would be a bigger danger than a Labour victory,” said Clarke, one of the heavyweights of the Conservative party and a former finance minister.

“Fear of City Turmoil if Election Delivers Hung Parliament,” was the Daily Telegraph headline prompted by Clarke’s comments over an article that referred to the “potentially devastating effect such a result could have on the financial markets at a time when the economy is on a life-support machine.”

Asked whether he agreed with Clarke, Cameron told the BBC: ”Not really, no. Ken has his own way of explaining these things. I think frankly anything is better than another five years of this Labour government.” He added: “I am working night and day not for a hung parliament, but for a majority government.”

Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, which may hold sway in a hung parliament as the second main opposition party, commented after the latest poll: “It’s a great thing that we’re going to have a major debate where a lot is at stake.”

What causes the greatest concern is the potential impact on the bond market, where the British government borrows by selling gilts, wrote Andrew Porter in the Telegraph. “A stalemate at Westminster could see market confidence drain away completely, leaving the U.K. facing a buyers’ strike as no one is prepared to buy gilts. After that, the only place to go is the International Monetary Fund.”

Do you think Britain is heading for a hung parliament? Would this undermine British economic recovery and what would be the consequences? Are critics ofa hung parliament simply not used to a coalition government in Britain where a hung parliament is a rarity?

10 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

People see too much in one poll, however, I believe the message that the Conservatives are sending out of cuts and tax rises against Labour who intends to spend their way out of the financial crisis, together with the Conservatives failure to reveal the details of their plans for Government is going against them. The British voter have a deep mistrust of the Conservatives and so nothing is certain in this coming election. If the Liberal Democrats become bold and drive forward their own points and policies they could do quite well in the election.

Posted by Mabon Dane | Report as abusive

The UK electorate has become used to the idea that votes have to be bought by benefits for the workshy and easy credit for the rest. The current Conservative message of old-style kitchen sink economics cuts no ice with modern voters.Whoever promises the most money will buy the election. The BoE’s printing presses will be running hot all the way up to polling day.

Posted by Jason | Report as abusive

A hung parliament is the best thing that could happen. The British political system is a hangover from an imperial age that has long passed. The people in Britain would strongly benefit from a holiday in which their daily lives are not interfered with by desperate power- and expense-hungry politicians, and the simplest way that can happen is by the politicians being too busy arguing about compromises to be able to actually pass any new laws. So please, let’s have a hung parliament.

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive

Hung parliament, with perhaps the Lib Dems holding the balance of power? Absolutely unmitigated disaster, 1929 will soon look like a walk in the park. Will the last person to leave please put the cat out.

Posted by Matthew | Report as abusive

I have thought that the election will be very close for some time. While I have read extensively of the inevitability of a Conservative landslide, I know precious few people that are changing their votes to them.Labour are losing support left right and centre, that is as much a problem for the Conservatives as it is for Labour.If we get Vince Cable in to 11 Downing Street, we will know that there is a God, and he is particularly fond of us.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

I think it’s too early to predict the result of a general election. At one period last year, the Conservative lead went right down to one point, and then came back up to twenty points in 2009,varying since, so all we can do is wait and see.

Posted by Robert Barnsley | Report as abusive

cameron backtracts on europe, Result? cons down, bnp up. Easy peasey

Posted by bernard | Report as abusive

Since 1997 this country has had one of the most draconian and anti-libertarian Governments ever known to the British people, it has also ceded massive tranches of power to the unelected body in the EU and the Conservative Party has failed in every aspect to stand up against this.When at last they had a real opportunity to tackle the EU problem and the loss of sovereignty by seriously opposing the Lisbon Treaty and offering us a referendum on our continued membership of the EU – they failed. Now the country is doomed and will be led into an undemocratic European superstate which no one wants.It is no wonder the Conservative Party led by Cameron is failing to make an impact, they have failed to lead on this most important of issues. All we can hope for now is for the people to realise their only option will be to vote UKIP which will take us out of the EU, as they did in June placing UKIP second in the European elections.

i have voted labour for most of my life but i have never seen a labour government so hung up on spin you are an absolute disgrace to the name and you will pay for missleading the british people. you are supposed to be a government for the british working man thats why the unions suport you but you are a government for the layabouts,and people who want handouts who would’nt know how to work. to pay for this you take off the people who have worked all thier lives.

Posted by brian murphy | Report as abusive

New website campaign calls for four-year
fixed term government to deal with a hung parliament

For the first time in over 30 years, there is a strong possibility that a General Election will result in no party having overall charge of Parliament. At the same time the grave continuing economic and fiscal crisis will be the major issue facing our government.

Around half of recent opinion polls put a hung parliament as a possible election result – if current voting intentions, as given to the pollsters, are translated into the number of MPs each party would have after the election.

Now a non-party group, Charter 2010, has launched a website http://www.charter2010.co.uk to promote discussion of how an indecisive election result should be handled by the party leaders and politicians. Charter 2010 says a hung parliament is “the result no-one wants to plan for” – and it accuses party politicians of a “conspiracy of silence” on the issue.

Posted by vickyk | Report as abusive

[...] Tatley, leader of the Communication Workers’ Union in Preston said a hung parliament, with no outright winner, would be best for working people, giving backbenchers as much power as [...]