In Depth

Cameron set to ‘squat’ at No 10 if Tories can win most seats

He would challenge Labour and SNP to bring him down and make it clear they wielded the ‘bloody dagger’

Columnist Don Brind

David Cameron risks being accused of ‘squatting’ in Downing Street if he goes ahead with plans to stay in office even if it becomes clear that he cannot get enough support for a new coalition or a minority government.

According to the Sunday Times, “senior Conservatives revealed that David Cameron is planning to continue as prime minister even if he lacks a Commons majority”.

The key question is whether, in the event of a widely predicted hung parliament, Cameron’s Tories outnumber Ed Miliband’s Labour MPs. 

The Sunday Times quotes a cabinet minister saying that if the Tories come out ahead after Thursday’s general election, “We will say: ‘We’re legitimate, we’re the largest party, we should carry on.’ If necessary, dare the others to vote down a Conservative government.”

The apparent aim is to highlight that Labour would need support from the SNP to form a government and it’s suggested Cameron would be prepared to put forward a Queen’s Speech – the date is set for 27 May 27 – to test the issue.

The Financial Times also foresees Cameron clinging on as long as the Tories emerge the largest party. It quotes an ally of the PM saying: “He would challenge Labour and SNP to bring down the government in plain sight [by voting down the Queen’s Speech] and make it clear that they had the bloody dagger in their hands.”

Constitutionally, in the event of a hung parliament, Cameron gets the first opportunity to see if he can form a sustainable government. But the ‘squatter’ charge will emerge as soon as there is any faltering in his negotiations with potential allies – the Liberal Democrats and the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionists.

Anthony Wells at UK Polling Report recalls that in 2010 Gordon Brown did his “constitutional duty” by remaining PM while negotiations took place “but it didn’t stop him getting flak for ‘squatting’ in Downing Street.” 

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has said he would open negotiations with the largest party and it’s widely thought his personal preference is another deal with Cameron. He made it clear yesterday that his party’s distaste for an in-out EU referendum was not a “red line issue” – at least not in his view.

Which brings us to the reality of the coalition negotiations. As The Observer reported yesterday, rebel Tories could block a new Conservative-Lib Dem pact, while Clegg faces revolt in the party ranks over any new Tory deal.

For the Tories, the backbench 1922 committee has been promised a say in any coalition talks – having not been involved in 2010 – while for the Lib Dems Clegg says: “I would never have the party go into a coalition government against its own collective will.”

The Lib Dem leader told The Independent’s political editor Jane Merrick: “You can’t weather all the pressures, you can’t hang tough, you can’t stay the course unless you’ve taken a collective decision.”

Indeed, any proposal to re-enter a coalition would have to be put to a special conference of Lib Dem members. With considerably more cynicism in the ranks about power-sharing than there was in 2010, the EU referendum could easily become a sticking point. 

So what are the chances of the Conservatives being the biggest party come Friday?

With the latest polls still showing the Tories and Labour neck-and-neck, James Forysth of The Spectator is one of those optimists who believe there will be a late swing to the Tories. He reckons Cameron has performed better than Miliband over the past week and that sitting MPs will get a bonus from voters for their hard work – the so-called incumbency effect. 

YouGov president Peter Kellner is another believer in the late swing. His latest polling – for today’s Sun - has the Conservatives one point ahead of Labour but he expects Cameron to have opened up a three-point lead (35 to 32 per cent) by Thursday.  

Kellner says YouGov has analysed 50,000 interviews over the past  ten days and found that Tory support is holding up in key marginals while the Lib Dems “are recovering strongly, albeit from a low base, in the seats they are defending”.

Kellner predicts that the Tories will lose fewer seats than expected to Labour and that the Lib Dems will keep more of their seats, enabling the Tories to achieve largest party status. 

If the late swing doesn’t emerge, however, current polling averages give Miliband the edge. YouGov’s ‘nowcast’ calculates that there will be 276 Labour MPs to the Tories’ 272.

UK Polling Report also has Labour ahead, while Electoral Calculus gives the Tories a four-seat lead.

Not one of these ‘nowcasts’ gives either party any hope of reaching the 326 seats that guarantee a Common majority: they fall short by 30 or 40 seats in every case.

Adding the Lib Dems to the Tories is very unlikely to make 326. Only the SNP have sufficient numbers to bridge the gap – and while Miliband promises there will be no pact between Labour and the Nationalists, the SNP are committed to voting against Cameron.

‘Squatting’ won’t change the maths. Only a genuine late swing to the Tories can do that, and they’ve left it horribly late.

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