The UK is a peculiar place. On one hand, as the centre of the World’s largest empire and still a global influencer and trade centre (41% of foreign currency trading globally takes place in the UK, versus 19% in the US), it is a hugely international and global hub; on the other hand, it can be quite unbelievably insular. Discussion of a potential Coalition Government after May’s General Election falls firmly into the latter category – the UK seems to have no idea what happens when no single party has an overall majority in Parliament, even though this is almost universally the case elsewhere in Europe (and in devolved legislatures within the UK itself).
Let us firstly be clear about what happens. The UK’s system is that the Prime Minister is appointed until he resigns (although he is compelled to do so if he cannot pass a Budget or loses a Vote of No Confidence in the House of Commons). Thus, after a General Election, the incumbent Prime Minister gets first attempt at forming a Government which can command a majority in the House of Commons – in other words, one which will not lose a Vote of No Confidence.
There are all kinds of ways he could achieve this. He can of course, as in 2010, offer a full coalition with another party. However, remember he only has to ensure he can pass a Budget; he does not have to form a Government representing a majority of MPs – so he can negotiate deals on specific policies, budget allocations or even appointments with other parties in return for their support (or even an abstention providing him with a majority) on Confidence Votes and the Budget (this is known as “an arrangement on Confidence and Supply”). In the recent Swedish election a four-party “left” coalition won more seats than a three-party “right” coalition even though both were short of a majority of seats (a populist party held the balance); via a series of deals and understanding a new government was formed consisting not only of Ministers only from the minority “left” coalition, but actually from only two of the four parties in that coalition.
For example, let us say the next UK General Election ends up with the Conservatives and Labour on around 275 seats each – 50 or so short of a majority. In such an event, we may have a Nationalist/Green bloc (led by the SNP) on conceivably 40-45 seats, the Liberal Democrats on around 30-35 seats, and a Populist bloc (UKIP/DUP) on around 20. No single bloc gets either side to a majority of seats, so a deal has to be done.
To be clear, the incumbent Prime Minister gets first go. Yet there is no way, realistically, a Conservative Leader could build a Coalition representing the majority of MPs in this circumstance. However, he could offer wide-ranging powers and extra allocations to Scotland and Wales in return for “support on Confidence and Supply”, and perhaps simply threaten UKIP there’ll be no EU referendum or “English Votes on English Issues” unless its MPs abstain in such circumstances.
This does not stop the Opposition negotiating, of course. It could offer no “English votes for English issues” to the SNP in return for an abstention on “Confidence and Supply” and then offer to form a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats which would lack an overall majority but would have one to pass a Budget with SNP abstentions. Alternatively, it could offer a highly favourable Budget to the SNP (and Scotland and Wales in general) in return for Nationalist support on “Confidence and Supply”, and then an EU Referendum to UKIP in return for its abstentions.
Of course, the smaller parties or blocs could make their demands. These may be obvious (referendums or budgets) or less obvious (a deal conditional on a bigger party nominating a different Prime Minister, for example).
All of this means that some of the daft talk we see – for example of the SNP in a Coalition Government at UK level – shows no awareness of politics at its most basic and, arguably, most exciting.