It was on this day 23 years ago that the exit polls suggested a Hung Parliament but, in fact, the Conservatives won with a narrow but sufficient majority of 21. It was an astonishing election, mid-recession, in which the Conservatives scored 42% of the vote and, for the only time ever (for any party), over 14 million votes.
Some things have changed dramatically. It is possible no party will even hit an eight-figure total this time. Seats in Brighton and Norwich, where the Greens now challenge, saw Green candidates scoring in the hundreds. An Independent named Alan Sked scored 117 – but subsequently became Leader of a growing party which is now the UK’s largest party in the European Parliament. The Conservatives gained seats in Scotland, securing second place comfortably behind Labour, and challenged seriously in Northern Ireland. Most constituencies had only four or five candidates – that is now typically double. The Liberal Democrats may not be so keen on proportional representation after this election. The SDLP’s win in Belfast West meant there were no absentee MPs.
Some things never a change of course. Scotland’s focus was on the constitution (albeit more on devolution than independence). Conservatives were split on Europe. Labour had an uninspiring leader. The SNP threatened to dominate a Hung Parliament with Scottish demands. Northern Ireland saw a Unionist pact (in fact in all but three constituencies), an Independent elected in North Down, and a strong Alliance showing in Belfast East. The night began with all sides playing up their prospects and then suggesting they knew what was going to happen all along.
There was also a debate, as there is now, of what would happen in the event of a Hung Parliament and, specifically, in the event of one which would require more than two parties to get to a comfortable majority (as had happened in February 1974). Labour figures argued consistently during the night, at least until their defeat was apparent, that the Conservatives had “lost their mandate to govern” and, implicitly, that then Prime Minister John Major would have to resign even if the Conservatives had most seats. Funnily, they argued no such thing as Gordon Brown grimly held on for four days in 2010! The tune has switched again this time to “largest party” gets first go (to try to persuade Labour waiverers, notably in Scotland). These cannot all be true – so which is?
In fact, Labour was right in 2010 and wrong in 1992. In the event of a hung parliament, the Prime Minister remains Prime Minister until he loses a vote of no confidence (i.e. has a majority against him), although by convention he resigns as soon as it becomes apparent to him that this is definitely the case (the last to test it before resigning was Labour’s Callaghan towards the end of a term in 1979 – and understandably, as he lost by just one vote).
This means that the incumbent Prime Minister gets first go at forming a government even if he no longer leads the largest party in the Commons. This practical reality of this was reaffirmed as a convention in February 1974 when Ted Heath got first go despite being four seats behind Labour (although his party had won the popular vote), and effectively again in 2010.
For all that, Labour is also right, in practice, in 2015. Only a totally freak outcome would see the current incumbent have any chance of forming a government without also being the largest party – and it is 90 years since the Prime Minister came from any party other than the largest one in the Commons. Mr Cameron would, therefore, get first go, but if he is not the largest party he almost need not bother trying.
Likewise, it is highly unlikely – theoretically or practically – that Ed Miliband could form anything other than a caretaker government to be dissolved in a matter of months if he were not at the head of the largest party. Inevitably, people would query his democratic legitimacy (particularly if he had lost the popular vote).
In theory, therefore, in the event of a Hung Parliament the largest party is an irrelevance – the incumbent gets first go and, if he cannot form a government which would win a Vote of No Confidence in the Commons, he leaves it to the Leader of the Opposition to try. However, the maths do mean that, in reality, the largest party will almost certainly lead the government.
The real question is how long that government lasts – currently, five months is as good a bet as five years.