As the UK general election inches ever closer, the more feverish becomes the media’s outpourings. All eyes it seems are on Scotland and the implications of the projected SNP surge for coalition building at Westminster. What however seems to go unmentioned is the consequences of the results in England. Put simply, do future UK governments need to have an overall majority in England? This has always been the norm up till now, and pre devolution did not really matter much anyway. It does now, as can be seen from all the furore over the various attempts to introduce some way to ensure that only English votes determine English laws – EVEL to its friends and foes. The problem at heart is of course the lopsided nature of the current devolution settlement with parliaments or assemblies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but nothing for England. Which means that the UK government is also, for all devolved matters, the government of England. Which in turn begs the question, do UK governments need to have an overall majority in England in order to govern in England? Another way to put it would be to ask for how long would the majority in England tolerate “their” government being dependent on Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish votes?
This is an English Question that is possibly even more important than any Scottish Question. It is particularly relevant right now as just about all current opinion polls indicate that it will very difficult, if not impossible, for either Labour or the Tories to form a government with an overall majority in both England and the whole of the UK. The difficulty is different for our two main UK parties. The Tories are likely to emerge with an overall majority in England, but will find it very difficult to construct a stable majority in the UK as a whole. While for Labour their problem is the opposite – they are most likely to be in a minority in England, but find it possible to form a majority across the UK.
In England the magic number is 267, the number of seats that ensure an overall majority. The Tories currently have 294 of these seats and even with any losses in May are still likely to emerge with 267 or more MPs from England. This is in large part due to the party’s continuing unpopularity in Scotland and Wales. With only one MP from Scotland and merely eight from Wales, the Tories are effectively already an English party. Even if, against all the odds, the party was to increase its representation in Scotland and Wales, it is most unlikely to be by much. Let us assume, for the purpose of illustration, that the Tories emerge with a total of 13 MPs from Wales and Scotland. That means that with a total of as low as 280 MPs, the party would still command an overall majority in England. Of course if, as expected they do not make any progress in Scotland and Wales, then 275 MPs in total could be sufficient to ensure an overall majority in England.
For Labour, it is looking very grim in England. Currently the party has 191 English MPs and while this number is likely in increase considerably, it unlikely to increase enough to ensure an overall majority in England. This of course is partly due to the party’s strength in Wales and Scotland. While the SNP look like eroding Labour’s Scottish bastion, they may not be quite as successful as the latest polls indicate. Which paradoxically is bad news for Labour in England. By way of illustration, let us assume that Labour in Scotland hold on to 11 seats, retain their current 28 seats in Wales and win a total of 300 MPs. Take away the 39 non English MPs and Labour are left with just 261 seats in England, still a minority. If Labour were to win 300 seats across the UK, their best chance of securing an overall majority in England would be for the SNP to win just about everything in Scotland. If there are only two Labour MPs from Scotland, Labour would then have a comfortable overall majority of seats in England. What this little illustration shows, is that it is more important for Labour to do better in England than in Scotland.
For the UK as a whole, the magic number is 326 or 323, if you assume that Sinn Fein continue to not turn up at Westminster. This is where the projected collapse of the LibDems complicates matters greatly, or adds to the excitement if you prefer. With around 20+ MPs, it is most unlikely that they will be in a position to ensure an overall majority for either Labour or the Tories. Only if one of the large parties win 300 or more seats will the LibDems on their own come into play. Currently most polls show neither Labour nor the Tories getting much above 290, if even that number. Again to illustrate the options, let us take 290 as the figure for both the Tories and Labour. Both then need to find another 36 MPs in order to secure a minimum overall majority.
It is somewhat simpler for the Tories in that they are likely to have an overall majority in England and as the SNP have ruled out any deal, their options are reduced. The only viable option would seem to be a tripartite coalition with the LibDems and the DUP from Northern Ireland. That might just take them over the winning line, but just as likely might leave them a few seats short. Support from any UKIP MPs might help, but on the other hand might put the LibDems off. With 290 MPs this coalition is possible, but with anything less, say just 285 MPs, the Tories would find it almost impossible to lead the next government.
When it comes to Labour, their first problem will probably be to secure an overall majority in England, which almost certainly will mean reaching an agreement with the LibDems. However that would still leave a projected Lab/LibDem coalition around 12 or so seats short of an overall majority. As with the Tories a deal with the DUP would not be enough. The other Northern Irish MPs – the SDLP for example – might be sufficient, but their inclusion might create problems for the DUP. At the margins any Green MPs might help, but again it is unlikely they would want to be involved in a formal coalition. For Labour the SNP are likely to provide enough votes on their own to form a coalition, but without the LibDems Labour would remain a minority in England. A Labour/LibDem/SNP coalition would provide the most stable outcome in terms of numbers, but is probably the most unlikely, given both Labour and LibDem hostility to the SNP.
All the above, and most of the media commentary is base on the assumption that the next government needs to have an overall majority at Westminster. However minority government is not uncommon in many countries and was successful in Scotland from 2007-2011. This is where perhaps the SNP has its clearest role in the next parliament. Abstention by the SNP on a confidence motion would then be crucial in who does get to lead the next UK government. The SNP would remain free to vote against Trident and would not need to actually vote for any of the alternatives. The question then would be what price would the others be willing to pay for SNP abstention?