It’s a fitting end to the British general election.
We have had thirty years of entrenched majorities – as a dominant party defined the terms of the debate, and the media made sure the opposition never caught a break. In 1997, the swing from Conservative to Labour dominance was sudden and decisive.
Now we have an utterly unpredictable polling day. Tiny shifts in the share of vote between parties and, especially, its geographical distribution could have a disproportionate impact on the political landscape that emerges on Friday.
If it’s close, it will all come down to spur-of-the-moment decisions by three very tired men. Constitutionally, Brown remains Prime Minister until someone else can command ‘the confidence of the House.’
As incumbent, he also should get first dibs on forming a new government, though it is widely expected that Cameron will declare victory early, and use the media to establish his right to govern.
As Alex has warned, there’s also a possibility that the bond markets will push the pace, as they open at 1 a.m. tomorrow morning to react to election news. Yields on UK 10-year bonds have spiked this morning, but are still lower than they have been for much of the year.
If Cameron gets the most votes and the most seats, he’ll surely go on to form a government. If not, a period of Florida-style uncertainty seems more than possible. What, one wonders, will be the UK’s equivalent of the hanging chad?
Either way, we can expect some exceptionally close Commons votes, perhaps a referendum on electoral reform, and – surely – a Parliament that won’t last for a full term. That means more elections for parties that have bankrupted themselves during this one.
This unaccustomed volatility in the electoral system seems curiously appropriate. As the past few years have shown, we now live in an era where the UK is far from being in control of its own destiny.
Look forward and we can expect the following forces to frame the government’s strategic choices.
First, global risks will continue to drive domestic policy. Voters will not actively call for a more effective foreign policy, but they will notice and bemoan its absence.
Global forces will continue to have considerable impact on their lives, with the main sources of strategic surprise coming from beyond the UK’s borders.
Over the next ten years, moreover, most risks will be on the downside. We have lived, as I have argued, through a volatile decade. There is every reason to expect risks to continue to proliferate.
Each new crisis will create political aftershocks with demands for governments to clear up the mess, matched by inquiries into why they failed to prevent the problem in the first place.
Finally, the government will find that, in most cases, it does not have the levers to manage risks as effectively as it would like to.
Whatever the next Prime Minister wants to do, he is going to find that global volatility, a lack of money, and government mechanisms that are equipped for the problems of another age, constrain his scope for action.
On top of that, he’ll only be able to solve problems if he can rustle up a coalition of other countries, all of whom will be beset by the same problems.
If – and it’s a big if – there is to be a new dominant paradigm in British politics, replacing those established by Thatcher and New Labour, then it will be because a leader emerges who has the skill to govern well in an age of global uncertainty.
I can’t imagine a more exciting time to pitch up in Downing Street, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]
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.]
Ask not for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for the UK, as Jennifer Hughes has it…
A UK newspaper is said to have once run the headline “Fog over Channel, Continent Isolated”.
British attitudes may have changed since, but there will be some in London watching the eurozone wrangles over Greece and thanking the UK’s monetary isolation. But this would not reflect the market reality: while headlines have focused on Greece and the other weak eurozone members, investors have been steadily selling UK debt.
On Thursday this reached some milestones; 10-year gilt yields hit 15-month highs and the spread, or premium the UK pays over German borrowing costs, reached a full percentage point for the first time in four years. The UK now pays as much to borrow as Italy, considered one of the more vulnerable eurozone members and – at best – rated two notches below Britain.
It’s been another terrible day for the pound as markets punish the British government for stepping in to prop up… the markets:
Analysts said the [latest bailout]… shone a particularly unflattering light on the state of the British government’s finances as it was forced to take an ever-increasing role in the private sector.
James Hughes at CMC Markets said: “Any support seen through yesterday’s session for sterling is looking to be little more than wishful thinking as currency markets take on board the fact that the UK government is risking looking like a huge bank with some legislative functions attached, as RBS now seems to be teetering on the brink of full nationalisation.”
Credit ratings agencies are also enjoying the party, despite being utterly discredited. When they downgrade the UK’s credit rating, the current devaluation (which has upsides) may turn into a rout (which won’t):
The Commonwealth Bank of Australia lowered its forecast for the pound to $1.50 by the end of June from a previous estimate of $1.60, citing a high risk of a cut to the UK’s credit rating outlook. Richard Grace, CBA’s chief currency strategist, warned in a note on Tuesday that UK debt may now be greater than forecast due to the government’s additional bank bailout plans and cited the “high risk” of a downward revision to the ratings outlook for the UK.
Any downgrade wil force many investors to sell their UK government debt, raising the government’s cost of borrowing. The FT’s Lex thinks there’s one thing that will stop a run on the pound – all the world’s other major currencies are screwed too…