After the vote: how would coalition negotiations work? (updated)

So we’ve looked at the composition of a potential coalition government, how a coalition might change policymaking in Whitehall, and what it might mean for electoral reform. But what about the most immediate issue: how negotiations between the parties would work on the morning after the vote?

Start with the constitutional issues. The key thing to remember is that if we do end up with a hung parliament, then the Queen will first invite Gordon Brown to form a government, because he’s the sitting PM, and only if he can’t will she invite David Cameron to take a shot.

This sequencing issue is of no small importance, because it fundamentally shapes the Lib Dems’ room for manoeuvre – and according to Philip Stephens, they’re already screwing it up. He pronounces himself “baffled” that Nick Clegg “seems intent on throwing away his best negotiating cards in the event that Britain wakes up on Friday to a hung parliament”. He explains (emphasis added):

Were Mr Clegg to repeat on Friday morning that he intended to shun the prime minister and talk to the Conservatives, Mr Brown would be obliged to resign immediately. Mr Cameron would be summoned to the Palace and would be prime minister by Friday afternoon, regardless of anything Mr Clegg said. It would then be entirely up to the Tory leader whether to talk to the Lib Dems before the Queen’s Speech on May 25 or whether to dare Mr Clegg to try to vote the new administration down.

The Lib Dems would have lost all leverage, since forcing a second election would be to risk a backlash from the voters. By contrast, by stating that he was ready to talk to both party leaders with a view to a coalition or other electoral arrangement, Mr Clegg would keep hold of his bargaining chips. Mr Brown would remain in Number 10 while talks were under way, putting pressure on Mr Cameron to match any offer to the Lib Dems from Labour.

I agree with Philip’s argument, but there’s one key variable he doesn’t take account of: the bond markets. In a radically unhelpful move, LIFFE – the London futures exchange – has announced that instead of starting off at 8am, as normal, gilt markets will be open from 1am on election night.

Bond traders will be able to react in real time to results rolling in from key marginal seats, in other words: so as well as measuring how the night’s going through the traditional BBC swingometer, we’ll also be able to track progress through yields on three month short Sterling interest rate futures. Well, great.

Because bond traders – those noted political science experts – have clear views about what a hung parliament would mean for the deficit, as today’s Wall Street Journal makes clear.

“It will be difficult for a minority government to implement credible fiscal tightening through tax hikes or cuts in spending [if] we end up with a hung Parliament,” said Mark Schofield, global head of interest-rate strategy at Citigroup.

As it happens, they’re wrong. As I argued in my post on coalition scenarios, a coalition would be more credible on cutting the deficit, not less, as long as it can hammer out a joint programme; a government with a wafer-thin majority and less than a third of the popular vote doesn’t exactly have a resounding mandate, whereas two parties, with 60% of the national vote, have much more of a base from which to be able to make unpopular decisions.

But who cares about any of that? What LIFFE’s decision means is that if we do end up with a hung parliament, then rather than having a few hours for party leaders to draw breath, get some sleep, and ready themselves for the talks ahead, the pace of events and the media narrative will be dictated by the stampede mentality of the bond markets – and potentially by a rout on sterling that could be well underway hours before the Queen is even awake, never mind receiving party leaders.

Admittedly, such a scenario would pressure party leaders to move decisively to create greater certainty for the markets. But realistically, forming a government is just the first step, nowhere near sufficient on its own. Before investors start to calm down for real, the coalition will need to agree a joint programme for cutting the deficit – and how long do you suppose that’s going to take them to hammer out?

Earlier this week I quoted Alan Beattie observing of the Eurozone crisis that “adherence to constitutional niceties is admirable, but this is a debt crisis in the capital markets of the 21st century, not the Congress of Vienna”. Let’s hope his words don’t come to have similar resonance closer to home.

Update: anonymous senior Tories are quoted in today’s Telegraph as coming close to ruling out a deal with the Lib Dems:

Even if he fails to secure an outright majority, it is understood Mr Cameron is preparing to “go it alone” and form a minority government. The Tories are confident an informal understanding with unionist MPs from Ulster could secure Mr Cameron a safe passage with his key early Commons battles, including getting a first Queen’s Speech and Budget passed …

… Mr Cameron is also relying on the reluctance of the Lib Dems or Labour to risk unpopularity with the electorate by bringing down a minority Tory government at a time of economic uncertainty. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, indicated yesterday that his party would be unlikely to force another election. Senior Whitehall sources have indicated they expect Mr Cameron to push ahead without a formal coalition if he falls short of a majority. A shadow Cabinet minister said: “We don’t need a formal coalition deal if the unionists are on board for the key pieces of legislation.”

The Democratic Unionists have eight seats in the current Parliament, having won nine of them in 2005.

[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]