Britain faces leap into unknown in case of poll limbo

6th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

Britain faces a political leap into the unknown if Thursday's legislative elections fail to produce a clear winner, experts say, with opinion polls suggesting it is a distinct possibility.

Without a written constitution, the decision as to who becomes prime minister depends on negotiations between the parties -- and mediation by three key "mandarins," or top civil servants.

Public opinion and media pressure could also come into play if the outcome of the legislative elections is unclear on Friday morning.

"The politicians' decisions will be dependent upon a confluence of factors," said a study for the parliamentary Hansard Society by four leading constitutional experts.

These include "electoral arithmetic; constitutional conventions; the pressure of the 24-hour media cycle and blogosphere; the influence of the financial markets; and the perceived direction of public opinion," they added.

The key number of seats to secure a clear win would be 326 -- an absolute majority in the 650-seat House of Commons, the so-called "mother of parliaments" which has served as a democratic model since the 18th century.

Anything less and the result enters "hung parliament" territory, where everything depends on horse-trading between the parties, depending on exactly how many seats they secure.

Broadly, two main scenarios have emerged after a month-long campaign that saw the Conservatives retain their opinion poll lead, while the traditionally third-placed Liberal Democrats surged into second place, at least for a time.

These are:

- the main opposition Conservatives secure an absolute majority. In this case Prime Minister Gordon Brown takes a last ride in his armoured Jaguar to Buckingham Palace, to tender his resignation to Queen Elizabeth II, handing over the keys to the PM's 10 Downing Street office immediately to Conservative leader David Cameron.

- neither party secures the magic number, 326 seats. In this case, "the incumbent government remains in office unless and until the prime minister tenders his and the government's resignation to the monarch," according to the rules.

Concretely this means that Brown has the right to stay in office -- even if his Labour Party loses both in terms of votes and parliamentary seats -- and scramble to forge a deal to prop up a new government.

The most obvious deal would be with Lib Dems -- although their leader Nick Clegg has suggested Brown's departure could make a pact easier, fuelling rumours that Foreign Secretary David Miliband might step up to forge a "Lib-Lab" accord.

Brown, while formally entitled to seek to form a new government, would however likely come under intense pressure from media and public opinion to step aside for the greater good.

All but one of the country's national newspapers have lined up behind the Conservatives in the final days of campaigning.

"There is convention and there is practice and they are not always the same thing," said Cameron, who appears ready to play hardball to ensure Brown's departure, assuming his party performs as forecast by the polls.

The only option ruled out is a European-style "grand coalition" between Labour and the Conservatives. While common on the continent, such arrangements are almost unheard of in Britain, except during the two world wars.

If things get really sticky, a so-called "golden triangle" of top officials could come into play.

Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell, the country's top civil servant, would coordinate with the queen's private secretary Christopher Geidt and 10 Downing Street permament secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood.

Their role is to "ensure fair play and that the Queen is not tainted by an electoral muddle," according to The Times newspaper.

But Akash Paun of the Institute for government underlined that the parties "have the duty to sort out the problem among themselves," adding: "The Queen is kept out of the political process. She will be kept informed."

Or, as a source familiar with the rarely required process elegantly explained to the Financial Times newspaper: "The strength of the system is that Her Majesty never has to use any of her latent powers."

If the result is unclear come Friday morning, all eyes will be on Brown -- to see how he responds to the combination of political reality and popular pressure.

If, against the odds, he manages to cobble together a deal he may yet hang on to office. But observers say the outlook looks bleak for the dour Scot, who has often struggled since succeeding Tony Blair in 2007.

"By trying to cling on to 10 Downing Street, Gordon Brown would give the impression of a coup d'etat," commented one European diplomat.

© 2010 AFP

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