On a blustery, sunny Wednesday afternoon here in London, on the last day of what has been by UK standards a long General Election campaign, no clear winner is evident. Polls suggest a slight edge for the incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, but not enough for an outright win. The polls are usually pretty accurate and British elections rarely witness last-minute mass changes of mind or surges on the part of the electorate, so nobody can predict which of the two main contenders will swing through the gates of Buckingham Place on Friday morning. Perhaps nobody will, at least not on Friday; perhaps the black Prime Ministerial Jaguar will remain parked up for a few days yet, its government chauffeur idly tapping his fingers on the wheel, because coalition-building is an unfamiliar activity in UK national politics. Deals will need to be done; the story of the final day of the campaign is that, just maybe, some of the deals have already been done. But by whom and between whom?
The five-year administration just ending was run by a coalition formed of Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, whose leader Nick Clegg won the prize of Deputy PM but lost a lot of credibility. Suddenly, he is back in the sunshine. Provided he holds onto his own Commons seat, he might find himself courted by, depending on which rumor you read, either Cameron or Labour’s Ed Miliband for support in forming the next UK Government. The complicated precedent-based constitutional situation here requires that the monarch invite the party leader who can command the confidence of the House of Commons. In practice, that usually means being able to secure the backing of enough MPs to pass that party’s proposed program of legislation. Until recently that was mostly straightforward, although so-called “minor” parties have contributed to the downfall of Governments on occasion. But now, significantly, two-party politics is fracturing and a multi-party system looks like it’s here to stay. This is a mainstream European model but one that does not fit the electoral structure we presently have.
Therefore, on the eve of the election there has been much talk of legitimacy; a word barely uttered in this context before yesterday. Election discourse in the media, if not in the workplaces nor on the trains and buses, centers on the implications of no clear winner emerging. Who gets to govern, especially if he (it is still going to be either Cameron or Miliband; the two-party system survives to that extent) gains more MPs than his opponent, but does not reach the required simple majority in the House? Or would one contender assume legitimacy even if the other has slightly more seats but cannot command the confidence of enough MPs? There is nothing written down anywhere to say that the government must be formed by the party with the most seats. If it’s a hung Parliament on Friday morning, the incumbent Prime Minister would have a go at forming a new Government not least because, in that event, he is obliged to stay on at least as a “caretaker”; but there is nothing to prevent any other party leader attempting the same. The widely forecast collapse of Labour in its Scottish heartland much reduces Miliband’s chances of being in any position to do so. He has categorically ruled out any deal with the triumphant Scottish Nationalists, mainly to refute Tory assertions that he will be their poodle. It’s still going to be about the arithmetic on Friday morning and possibly for some days afterwards.
This is an election that could change much about the UK. A Conservative win will, if manifesto commitments are kept, lead to a UK-wide referendum on continuing European Union membership. Were that to lead to a UK exit from the EU—the so-called “Brexit”—then according to present indications, Scottish voters would reject such a conclusion, whereupon a second independence referendum would be inevitable. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, whose resurgent party will play a pivotal role in the next Westminster administration, last weekend renewed her declaration that this election campaign in not about independence and that the anticipated SNP gains on Thursday do not give them a mandate to seek a fresh referendum. Nobody is fooled; it’s her party’s raison d’etre so maybe it’s not about independence this time, this year. Depending on whether and how coalition negotiations proceed on Friday and perhaps for some days afterwards, demand might arise for a fresh look at UK electoral arrangements—is it time for a European-style proportional representational system, or will we persist with first-past-the post? This could be a delicate moment for British Parliamentary democracy and even for the United Kingdom itself.
David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.