Insights from the UK and beyond
Hung parliament haunts Conservatives
A once unthinkable prospect is striking fear into the hearts of the Conservative Party faithful as they gather for their last conference before the British election — that the party could fall short of winning a parliamentary majority.
After months of big opinion poll leads, the opposition Conservatives looked set fair to win the election, expected in May, ending Labour’s 13-year grip on power.
But, even though Britain is just emerging from its deepest recession since World War Two and Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown is unpopular, the latest polls show the Conservative lead narrowing to as little as five points.
That means there is a growing likelihood that the election will result in a “hung parliament”, where no party enjoys overall control, for the first time since 1974.
That could allow Brown to cling to power, dashing the Conservatives’ hopes of ending a run of three election defeats.
A hung parliament also worries financial markets, which fear a minority or coalition government would be too weak to take decisive action to rein in a budget deficit forecast to reach more than 12 percent of Gross Domestic Product this year.
As Conservatives’ gathered in the south coast resort of Brighton for their spring forum, their concern could be gauged by the dozens of activists who crowded into a meeting on the fringes of the conference about a possible hung parliament.
“If there’s a hung parliament, we let Gordon Brown in by the back door,” said Janice Small, Conservative candidate in the Labour-held Batley constituency in West Yorkshire.
Annesley Abercorn, Conservative candidate in the Hazel Grove constituency, near Manchester, held by the smaller opposition Liberal Democrats, said he thought a hung parliament was unlikely, voicing optimism about the Conservatives’ prospects of gaining the 117 seats they need.
He listed a number of reasons why he would be concerned if the election did lead to the first hung parliament since the 1970s, “when we had flared trousers and Boney M”.
It would create uncertainty, be weak and be perceived as a stepping stone to another election, he said.
“A hung parliament or indecisive election result would cause panic on the markets and uncertainty, potentially for weeks, while negotiations and horse-trading continued,” he said.
The way the big parties’ support is distributed throughout Britain means the Conservatives need a much bigger share of the vote than Labour to win a majority of parliamentary seats under the first-past-the-post system.
Tim Bale, head of politics at Sussex University and author of a new book on the Conservative Party, said if the Conservatives’ opinion poll lead fell to around 7 percent, it could produce a hung parliament.
“Certainly if the gap goes down to 5 percent I think the Conservative Party needs to be very concerned,” he said.
An Ipsos-MORI poll for the Daily Telegraph on Friday showed the Conservative lead slipping to five percent among people certain to vote and said this would give Labour marginally more seats than the Conservatives, though no overall majority.
Conservative activists comfort themselves by saying they are doing better in the marginal seats they must win than they are nationally. But Bale said this was a “very big assumption”.
To try to avoid an inconclusive election, he suggested the Conservatives could “play up the idea that a hung parliament would worry the financial markets.”
They could also play up the danger that a coalition or minority government would not be able to take the tough decisions needed on the economy, even though evidence from other countries suggested this was nonsense, he said.
Bale warned the Conservative activists that, if there was an uncertain outcome, Brown could stay in Downing Street until it was clear who stood the best chance of forming the next government. During that period, he would be able to talk to other parties about joining him, rather than Conservative leader David Cameron, in a coalition.
He suggested Brown could seek Liberal Democrat support for a minority Labour government in return for agreeing to a referendum on electoral reform, their long-held goal.
George Parker, political editor of the Financial Times, said the markets were already very nervous.
“Everyone you speak to in the City … says a hung parliament is something they worry about and that worry will intensify as the election approaches,” he said.
He raised doubts about whether these fears were justified, saying that there was little difference between the Conservative and Liberal Democrats’ stance on cutting the deficit and that coalition governments in countries such as Sweden and Finland had succeeded in cutting deficits in the early 1990s.
The Conservatives have made several slips in recent weeks,creating confusion over their policy on tax breaks for married couples and exaggerating the number of teenage pregnancies.
Even so, Conservatives find it hard to believe that Brown, who they blame for leading the country into a debt crisis and deep recession, could make a comeback, snatching the prize from their grasp, at this late stage.