Last Thursday was ringed in my diary with the words "general election?" I pencilled it in when the May election resulted in a hung parliament and there seemed every chance that a minority Conservative government would soldier on until David Cameron asked for a proper mandate and a second election.
There is a very interesting discussion of this in the excellent and indispensable 'The British General Election of 2010', the new 'Nuffield' election study, now authored by Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley (of Liverpool and Nottingham!).
As Kavanagh and Cowley write in their 'Five Days in May' chapter:
Post-formation, there was also a claim that the outcome was somehow inevitable, that there was - to use a phrase beloved of Mrs Thatcher - no alternative. Yet there were several alternatives.
Several figures around Cameron - though excluded from the negotiating team and his thinking - certainly favoured another approach. One option was to negotiate only on the basis of a confidence and supply arrangement and to refuse any requests for coalition. Others favoured an even riskier strategy - which was to imitate Harold Wilson's behaviour in 1974 and let the other parties take the lead ...
When negotiations between Labour and the LibDems failed, as they were sure they would, Cameron's authority would have been enhanced. He could then govern as a minority PM, calling and winning another election within a year or two or negotiate an agreement with the LibDems from a position of strength, knowing that Nick Clegg no longer had any alternative home. Ceding the initiative to Labour in this way would have been a high risk strategy, especially for Cameron personally (if Brown and Clegg did manage to patch together a deal, even one that only lasted for six months or so, that could have been the end of the Cameron leadership) and anyway there was no guarantee of winning another quickly held election. In both 1910 and 1974, the last two elections to see two elections in one year, the results barely shifted at the second contest. Moreover, as John Curtice shows [Nuffield appendix], the political geography of the UK has changed in recent years, producing fewer marginal seats so making a victorious second election even less likely.
The LibDems also had choices, though they were not easy ones. ...
They are right. Nobody knows what would have happened.
But that is quite a significant challenge to the conventional wisdom about this scenario.
And the assumption of an easy Tory victory in a second election is often the foundational reason why most Liberal Democrats who are not instinctive enthusiasts for this Coalition (such as Simon Hughes) believe that their party did make the best of a series of difficult options in May 2010. These Liberal Democrats have a very arguable case - but it can not be nearly as open and shut as they think.
The conundrum is this. If the outcome would have been as the LibDems think, why wasn't there much stronger pressure on David Cameron from within his own party to hold out against a Coalition (instead of immediately making that easily his preferred outcome) and so take the prize of single party rule? The primary answer is that this outcome would have been very far from certain. (One alternative hypothesis is that Cameron and his party's interests diverge: that if most Conservatives would prefer a majority government to a Coalition, Cameron would not if the majority is small, because he would substantively prefer to make concessions to Nick Clegg to not have to make them to some on his own backbenches. According to taste, this can be taken as proof of Cameron's centrism, or alternatively as an indicator that Clegg's instincts mean he converges with Cameron on the centre-right, and so is not likely to make red lines of concessions which Cameron can not comfortably make).
In truth, there are many more uncertainties in several directions in any "second General Election of 2010" election scenario. Here are a few of them:
1. The route by which the Conservatives would have established a minority government is not straightforward. Securing a minority government would have required a substantive negotiation with the Liberal Democrats, who would need to be ready to vote 'no confidence' were Gordon Brown to test the confidence of the Commons, before at least abstaining to let the Tories in. It is a plausible hypothesis that the negotiating position of the LibDems vis-a-vis the Conservatives is as strong (or stronger) in policy terms - for example, over the budget and spending review, in particular - with the significant exception of having any enforceable guarantee on futue election timing. (That suggests it might be plausible to note a possible trade-off here between policy influence and party interests).
2. David Miliband would probably be the Labour party leader, since the party would have had to hold a leadership election on the shortest possible timetable. It is probable (though not certain) that Ed Miliband would have contested the leadership, but his chances would have been weakened without a longer campaign. The advantages for David Cameron of seeking a mandate in power have to be weighed against the loss of the brooding Scot Gordon Brown as an opponent, though Labour would have ceded an "experience" argument at the same time. (If David Miliband were leader, there could well be a good party unity case for him having as Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls or Yvette Cooper!).
3. The prevailing assumption is that Cameron would win a "crisis mandate". But there would also have been limits to ramping up this argument. This would have proved at odds with Cameron's "reassurance" strategy which he felt was absolutely crucial to dealing with his party's (unresolved) brand decontamination issues. The electoral challenge, second time around, was not to deepen the conviction of the need for a Tory government among the 36% he had won - and so who were convinced by the Tory and press argument on this in May 2010 - but to persuade a significant number of voters who went LibDem or stuck with Labour in the election we had. So the Prime Minister would have been arguing about an urgent crisis and yet continuing (for electoral reasons) to say he saw no need for frontline service cuts (as he did on the final weekend in May 2010).
Yet David Cameron would face vulnerabilities within his own party and from his right, where the post-May debate has focused on the weaknesses of Cameron's strategy and the uselessness of the Big Society as a public argument. So there would have been a very clear probationary sense of "last chance saloon" over a second election, though he would have used the imminence of a future election to try to manage this, while key the Murdoch and Dacre papers would be caught between instincts to double up cheerleading to win the second time and challenging the leader to shift his advocacy their way.
The Coalition has both reinforced Cameron's centrist public position and largely insulated David Cameron from some very significant party management issues. One political challenge might have particularly been how to maintain a lid on manouvering about what would happen in the event of a second hung Parliament, since any flashpoint which saw these spill out into significant public divisions - potentially reinforcing the "same old Tories" message which Cameron's team think potentially "toxic" - is not clear.
4. The Liberal Democrats would risk being squeezed, as a second election would have been tougher for Nick Clegg after the deflation of Cleggmania, and the dangers of instability of a hung Parliament might well be perceived as being borne out.
It is not easy to see how the LibDems would have fought the second election, perhaps focusing mainly on defending the seats they held. This explains why the Liberal Democrats - as the Nuffield account goes on to set out - appear to have first decided that a coalition with one of the parties was preferable to supply and confidence, before confirming their choice of which party that would be in the circumstances.
The LibDems might also have seen their policy platform raided. David Cameron could have attacked them for irresponsibility and over immigration, while nicking their pupil premium and tax threshold policies so as to appeal to their voters (though he would have become more resolute against electoral reform). A Labour Miliband would have had a similar electoral interest in pursuing some symbolic and practical shifts - especially on political reform, and on civil liberties - to appeal to LibDem votes. The LibDems would have complained bitterly about this, though it is also a route to influence (as, for example, Labour's constitutional reforms from 1997-2001 and the gradual rise of environmental issues show).
Amn attractive option which the LibDems would almost certainly seize would be to appeal more strongly to specific strong voter segments - perhaps especially ramping up the pro-student rhetoric on their clear pledge to reject all tuition fees, being able to exploit here their wilingness to campaign vociferously on a promise which neither of the other parties felt they could ever responsibly match.
5. A broadly similar result to that of May 2010 would have made alternative Coalition options much more viable.
Despite the possibility of a LibDem squeeze, the electorate could easily decide not to have a hung Parliament, if there remained significant doubts about the dangers of giving the Conservatives a clear mandate among voters who did not vote Tory in May 2010. The probability of this outcome tends to be underestimated: the current electoral geography (and incumbency advantages) make any big shift within months very difficult.
I suspect David Cameron could well have had the most seats and votes, but perhaps with a narrower lead over Labour than the 7% he won in May 2010, and no majority in the House of Commons. Politically, it would not have been Gordon Brown who had been rejected, but David Cameron whose call for a mandate had been rebuffed (rather as with Edward Heath in the first 1974 contest). If the Labour and LibDem seats total were higher, there would certainly be most likely to be a Lab-Lib coalition. The stability of any government - minority or Coalition - without a formal majority would be stronger given that a third election would not have been a plausible option.
But let us take one more imaginative leap. If there was an alternative government, the politics would become very difficult as soon as we get out of the exciting topsy-turvy week of coalition discussions this weekend and over the week ahead. Were they successful in negotiating an agreement this time, then the key political challenge for Prime Minister Mr Miliband, his deputy Nick Clegg, Chancellor Ed Balls and Chief Secretary Vince Cable would quickly become how to work out how to make a persuasive public case for different and smaller yet significant cuts in public spending to reduce the budget deficit.