What Next for Britain and the EU? Election Outcome Gives No Clear Mandate for Strong Leadership     Print Email

As widely anticipated, the British General Elections resulted in a hung parliament for the first time since 1974 – no party with an absolute majority.  Negotiations between the three main parties will be needed to form a government with a parliamentary majority, and avoid a vulnerable minority government.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of the negotiations, the election results present good news and bad news for the EU. The good news is that the Conservatives and David Cameron are unlikely to prove the obstructionist force as had been widely feared in Brussels. Not only will domestic challenges take priority, but a minority rule or a coalition with small parties would lead to a fairly weak government, one unlikely to take any drastic actions overseas. Equally, a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats would not try to rock the boat in Brussels, if only in deference to the strong Europhile feelings of the Liberal Democrats.

The bad news, however, is that a weaker and emasculated Britain will not be able to fully help the EU implement its ambitious agenda from the Lisbon Treaty.

In the election, the Conservatives won the highest number of seats – but 20 short of an absolute majority. The party gained 3.8% of the vote since the previous elections. Labour predictably suffered, with its worst showing since the Thatcher era. 3. The major surprise of the election, however, came from the disappointing performance of the Liberal Democrats. For all the talk of a surge and ‘Cleggmania, Nick Clegg proved to be, in the words of Anne Applebaum, the man you flirt with but never marry.  His party improved its showing in the ballot box by only one per cent over the last election.

David Cameron is thus the clear forerunner to be the next Prime Minister, but it might take several days of negotiations and horse-trading before that happens. Traditionally, the incumbent Prime Minister has the right to try first to form some sort of new government. Yet with Nick Clegg claiming that the party with the biggest mandate should have the right to govern, it is understood that the Conservatives would get the change to negotiate first with the Liberal Democrats. If those talks were to fail, the Liberal Democrats could also seek some kind of arrangement with Labour and Gordon Brown. In his position of potential king-maker, Nick Clegg would undoubtedly set electoral reform – a move towards more proportional representation – as a precondition for any kind of coalition.  However, it is not clear that either the Conservatives or Labour would welcome electoral reform, since both parties benefit hugely from the current system. Finally, if coalition attempts with the Liberal Democrats fail, the Conservatives could either seek an alliance with some of the other smaller parties, or attempt to rule through a minority government.

To sum up, these are the possible outcomes, starting with the least likely:

  • A very intriguing scenario would include a grand coalition between Labour and the Conservatives. There are historical precedents for this type of broad based alliance in times of crisis, such as during World War Two or in the 1930s during the Great Depression. However, this grand coalition has never been seriously discussed, and it would be surprising if Cameron wanted to be saddled with an unpopular Labour party.

  • There could be a “progressive alliance” between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, possibly with the Scottish Nationalists, to counter the Conservatives. But such an alliance would fall short of an absolute majority --  and would be hard sell to the public considering how badly Labour performed in the election.

  • A coalition involving the Conservatives, the Northern Irish Unionists, and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists would amount to an absolute majority. But it would be politically fragile. In any case, it is not clear that the Scottish and Welsh nationalists would want to be aligned with the Conservatives and their bent toward English nationalism.

  • Perhaps the most conventional outcome would be a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Such a partnership would command a strong majority, but there are many hurdles to overcome  in forming this coalition:  the two parties disagree very strongly on key issues – notably defense and “Europe” in the sense of Britain’s tactics in the EU.

  • A final scenario would have a Conservative “minority government,” based on loose agreements with other smaller parties not to bring down the government in no-confidence votes. In that case, which was the basis for a government in 1974, it is likely that David Cameron would copy his predecessor’s example and hold new elections within a few months in order to gain an absolute majority.

All these scenarios, even the most likely one (with its implicit expectation of early elections), leave Britain lacking strong leadership just when it is urgently needed for the sake of the country (and its partners in Europe and across the Atlantic).

By Garret Martin
European Affairs