WITH the UK facing its most fascinating and complex election in generations, the prospect of another hung parliament is provoking intense speculation about how the country will be governed after 7 May.
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Last week saw a pivotal moment as the campaigns heat up with the publication of a poll suggesting that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP will be at the very heart of the power-broking that will determine the UK’s next government.
To Labour leader Ed Miliband’s utter dismay, a Lord Ashcroft poll looking at 16 key Scottish constituencies shows astonishing swings to the SNP at the expense of Labour.
With Ashcroft forecasting Labour losing 35 of their 41 seats to the Nationalists, the SNP is on the march.
Meanwhile strategists are frantically working out the various combinations that can get their parties into power.
Three months away from polling day, it is all in the numbers as the parties try to work out the wheeling and dealing that can garner enough support to reach the 326 seats required for a majority in the 650-constituency House of Commons.
More data published by Hanover and Populus last week underlined the likelihood of a hung parliament and the SNP holding the balance of power.
According to Hanover and Populus’s probability-based election tool, which analyses the latest polls, the 2015 general election only has a six per cent chance of generating a decisive majority result.
The tool puts the Conservatives (274 seats) and Labour (273 seats) neck and neck, although Miliband is best placed to get into Downing Street, because his party is more attractive to potential partners.
Encouragingly for the SNP, Hanover and Populus reckon a Labour/SNP arrangement is the most likely outcome of the general election with a one in four chance of occurring on the basis of current polls and forecasts.
The next most likely result is a Labour-Liberal Democrat deal which has a one in five chance (19 per cent) of happening.
Here, Scotland on Sunday takes a look at four of the most likely outcomes, and the opportunities and implications for the SNP.
Labour and Lib Dems
Labour’s antipathy to the Nationalists means that its first port of call would be the Lib Dems.
Assuming the anticipated Lib Dem wipeout falls some way short of the Armageddon proportions many predict, Labour’s clear preference would be for a deal of some kind with Nick Clegg’s party.
Last week saw some preliminary manoeuvres in that direction. A joint report from two think tanks aligned with the two parties concluded that there was significant common ground between them.
The Fabian Society for Labour and the Centre Forum for the Lib Dems found policy “overlaps” and argued that policy differences were not insurmountable.
It argued that the number of contentious issues was relatively small. They include Trident replacement, where the Lib Dems want a pared down version of the nuclear deterrent and Labour is for renewal.
Airport expansion is another difficult area. Labour have been moving in favour of expansion of the London runway provision while the Lib Dems remain opposed.
The Lib Dems have argued that Labour’s energy price freeze would damage the UK’s ability to invest in renewables. While Lib Dem members are divided over whether to support Labour’s plans to introduce a 50p tax rate.
According to the joint report: “The success of any negotiation would probably turn on how these issues were handled: if the two parties wanted to work together they could probably find a way around these conflicts.”
Other items that are likely to find themselves on a Lib Dem shopping list going into talks with Labour would be an elected House of Lords and introducing proportional representation into English local government elections.
Experience says that engineering such major constitutional reform would be difficult. More encouraging from a coalition point of view is the common ground on economic policy.
“On the economy they can do a deal,” said John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University. “The Lib Dems are placed neatly between Labour and Tory on how to handle the deficit and they can therefore go either way. Like Labour they agree it should involve taxation, but unlike Labour, they think that it should be done by 2018, as the Tories do. But unlike the Tories they believe it should not be done just on expenditure cuts. They can go in either direction and a deal can be done.”
So while there may be Labour hardliners who view the Lib Dems as traitors for being in cahoots with the Tories for the past five years, Miliband’s hunger for power would ensure that there would be a strong temptation to overlook that baggage.
For Labour, leading a government propped up by the Lib Dems would be a clear second choice to the outright majority, which the polls suggest it will fall well short of achieving.
But it would have the clear advantage of saving Labour from the complications of having to work with the SNP – a scenario that would go down very badly in England.
The SNP as kingmaker
With the Lib Dems in free-fall it is possible that Ed Miliband would have to look elsewhere to secure power. With the polls predicting that the SNP could take 50 seats, Nicola Sturgeon is likely to find herself in the role of kingmaker.
This is the scenario that has the SNP licking its lips. In the post-referendum world, the SNP is more relevant than ever before when it comes to a Westminster election. With Miliband ignoring pleas from his backbenchers to categorically rule out dealing with the SNP, Sturgeon’s party has been promoting the idea that Nationalist MPs can prop up a Labour government on an issue-by-issue basis and keep David Cameron out of Downing Street.
A SNP wish list has been produced which includes its demand for Trident to be scrapped by not renewing the missile system.
On the economy, the SNP wants an end to austerity and would like to see a Keynesian-style cash injection – an approach which differs from that of Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor.
The SNP disagrees with Balls’s acceptance of the framework of the Conservative austerity plans – including welfare cuts. Although it should be noted that Labour believes cuts to the benefits bill should be done on a smaller scale than envisaged by the Conservatives.
Other SNP demands include a home rule settlement that gives Scotland power over everything save foreign affairs and defence.
Although Labour would not cave in to the SNP’s demands for its vision of home rule, Miliband might be prepared to look at devolving yet more powers to Holyrood – a move he hopes would keep the prospect of another independence referendum at bay.
But while the SNP may be on the verge of a remarkable election result and may well behave as if it holds the strongest cards, there are challenges faced by Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, who himself looks set for a dramatic return to frontline Westminster politics.
“Nicola Sturgeon is on the record as saying she will not support any government that wants to renew Trident. I just cannot see the Labour party agreeing to this,” said Curtice. “Labour will know darn well that if they string the SNP along on this issue when push comes to shove and Labour does decide to vote to renew in 2016, they will get a majority (via Conservative support) in the House of Commons to do it.”
According to Curtice, Labour would also find meeting SNP demands on austerity hard to stomach. With Sturgeon’s party refusing point blank to countenance any deal with the Tories, the SNP’s bargaining power would also be reduced as Miliband calculated that a deal with Labour was its only option.
Minority Conservative Government
If SNP/Labour negotiations hit the rocks, and the Tories win more seats than Labour, another scenario is Prime Minister David Cameron remaining in power in charge of a minority Conservative Government.
Many Conservative backbenchers have had their fill of the Lib Dems and would naturally favour this scenario.
Already, senior Tories are looking at the possibility of securing the help of the eight Democratic Unionist Party MPs in Northern Ireland. There is also the possibility of some sort of arrangement with Nigel Farage’s Ukip.
For the SNP, a minority Tory administration could create enormous difficulties. Should the election deliver a result that puts the SNP in a position as the sole kingmaker, then any failure to do a deal with Labour puts the Conservatives back in power.
That outcome would destroy the SNP’s pre-election narrative that it can work with Labour to keep out Cameron.
It also explains the message being relentlessly hammered out by Jim Murphy: that a vote for the SNP lets in the Tories.
The possibility of a large SNP vote effectively returning the Conservatives to power would inevitably prompt comparisons with a notorious incident back in 1979 when 11 SNP MPs voted with the Conservatives in a hung parliament to bring down Jim Callaghan’s Labour government – an act that put Margaret Thatcher into Downing Street at the start of an 18-year period of Tory rule.
“Labour will say it is the SNP’s fault that David Cameron is still in power,” said Curtice. “The really difficult one for the SNP is this. Let’s say the negotiations narrow and Labour makes significant concessions on further devolution to Scotland and that becomes known. Then the breaking point for a deal is Trident or austerity. If I were the Labour party I would be saying: ‘Look, these guys put their party interests before the interests of Scotland. Scotland is still ruled by a Tory prime minister and without the powers it could have had.’ Ouch.”
With five-year fixed parliamentary terms enshrined in law as a concession to the Lib Dems, calling a snap election is now more difficult than it was in 1974 when Harold Wilson did just that to secure a mandate.
Nowadays, snap elections can only be called if two-thirds of MPs want one – an unlikely prospect given that government and opposition would have difficulty agreeing a date. The passing of a “no-confidence” motion can also trigger an election, leaving the power over timing with the opposition leader.
A minority Conservative administration could find itself struggling to pass legislation as Labour did in the 1970s and John Major experienced in the latter part of his term of office in the 1990s.
With the power to call an election vested with the opposition, Labour might reckon that its most profitable option would be to keep a weak government in office.
Coalition Mark II. The Conservatives do a deal with the Lib Dems
This option would be a difficult one to swallow for many Conservative and Lib Dem backbenchers. With the current coalition relationship under deep pre-election strain, there are those within both parties who are desperate for change.
However, the past five years have shown that such an arrangement can provide reasonably stable government.
According to Curtice, the key issue is the in-out referendum on EU membership, which Cameron is determined to hold.
“The difficult one is going to be the Cameron statement that he is not going to lead a government unless he can have a referendum on the EU,” said Curtice. “The $64,000 question is whether the Lib Dems would be willing to grant that. The experience of the last five years is that they are probably not that trustful when it comes to Cameron and negotiations on Europe.”
If Cameron succeeds in making the EU referendum a red-line issue and it is written into the 2017 calendar, that would be the cue for more SNP agitation.
The SNP has already called for the introduction of a legislative clause which states that in the event of an in-out EU referendum all four UK nations would have to vote for withdrawal before the UK could exit.
With a European referendum looming on the horizon, the SNP would step up its arguments that Scotland and England are moving in separate political directions.
The existence of another Conservative-led UK government could even see it take the idea of a Scottish independence referendum off the back-burner.
In those circumstances, what are the chances that the SNP goes into the 2016 Scottish election with a manifesto calling for another independence poll to be held before the EU one?