Monday, 30 March 2015

Parliament is Dissolved – A Step into the Unknown

Parliament was dissolved at midnight this morning and the general election campaign proper has begun, also known as the ‘short campaign’. Before the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the Prime Minister would have gone to Buckingham Palace to ask the queen to formally dissolve Parliament, but this is now unnecessary. The fact that Prime Minister Cameron still went to the Palace today is really only for the photo opportunity, there is no constitutional reason for him doing this.

MPs are not allowed to call themselves MPs anymore, they are candidates like any other candidates until they are re-elected or not on 7 May. Although the Prime Minister remains in post until a new government is formed..

So who is running the country for the 5 weeks (or perhaps longer, if we do not get a clear winner as looks likely)? Step forward the Civil Service. We have entered what is known as ‘purdah’ whereby the permanent Civil Service keeps the government running on a ‘business as usual’ basis, no new policies will be introduced.

Purdah is a Persian word, later adopted in northern India, meaning quite literally ‘curtain’. It was a practice where women were hidden so men could not see them, and kept separate or veiled in a burqa. What it means here for government, is that there is no openness of the workings of government, in Parliament etc.

It is undemocratic by nature but perfectly understandable whilst an election is taking place. Indeed Belgium didn’t have an elected government recently for over a year, and hardly anyone noticed, as things trundled along as normal. This probably reflects that policies don’t change much these days, with responsibility increasingly handed to technocrats, be it the EU commission or the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, for example.

The result of the election itself still looks to be extremely difficult to predict, except that it is more than likely that the Conservatives and Labour will not get an overall majority. If I’m to stick my neck out, I’ll say that Labour will win the most seats, although it wouldn’t surprise me if I’m wrong and the Tories win the most seats. But in the event of Labour winning the most seats, it is not clear what happens next.

By convention, the party that wins the most seats usually get first chance to create a majority by approaching other smaller parties and making an arrangement. But as in almost everything about the British constitution, it is not that clear what exactly needs to happen.

In 1974 Labour won a few seats more than the incumbent Tory government but Prime Minister Ted Heath (who had won more votes though not seats) tried to agree a coalition with the Liberals. Only when this wasn’t achieved did Heath resign. And 5 years ago, Gordon Brown tried to hang on when the Tories were short of a majority. My guess is something similar may happen again this time. The Tories will try to cobble together a majority with the Lib Dems and the DUP.

Another similarity with 1974 is that the minority Labour government called a second election in the autumn of that year, and it will not surprise me if we have two elections this year. Of course the aforementioned Fixed Term Parliament Act will need to be repealed first, but that is a minor problem.

So here we are at the start of a probable roller coaster ride which promises to be a psephological and constitutional feast, at least for the likes of election anoraks like me.       

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