Who’s the devious plotter - Cameron or Miliband?
Telegraph claims Miliband is plotting to seize power: Guardian says it’s a Cameron coup we should fear
Is Labour “plotting” to oust David Cameron from Number Ten tomorrow – or is the “plotter” Cameron himself, determined to stay on in Downing Street even if he fails to command a Commons majority?
Voters have been presented with both possible plots as the latest polls show Labour and the Conservatives still deadlocked and Britain heading for the messiest hung parliament in living memory.
The Labour plot: According to the Daily Telegraph, the Tories fear Ed Miliband is plotting to seize power within 24 hours, even if the Tories win the most seats today (by what will be a tiny margin if the polls are correct).
Miliband, says Christopher Hope, the Telegraph’s chief political correspondent, will claim he has “legitimacy” even though he would have to rely on the backing of the SNP to get a Queen’s Speech passed in the Commons.
“Senior Labour aides are poring over copies of the Cabinet Manual, the Whitehall rule book which sets out how governments can be formed in the event of a hung parliament,” says Hope.
He claims the Miliband camp is plotting a media assault on the airwaves immediately the polls close in a bid to drive Cameron out of Number Ten.
“Labour is planning to ensure that it has senior figures close to Mr Miliband on the airwaves after polls close, with Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, already booked in for the crucial 10pm to midnight spot.”
The Tory plot: This scenario is laid out by The Guardian columnist Seumas Milne who believes Cameron is plotting a “coup” to cling to power in Downing Street.
Assuming the Tories win more seats than Labour today, the PM will claim he has “won” the election and has the right to stay in power, even if he cannot muster a majority in the Commons. (The Lib Dems are unlikely to have enough seats this time to help create a majority coalition.)
“Conservative politicians and their [newspaper] proprietor friends are determined to make sure that if anyone is going to seize power, it’s them,” writes Milne.
“If Miliband fails to win the largest number of seats, Rupert Murdoch’s Times declared on Monday, Cameron should ‘occupy Downing Street’, regardless of whether he has a majority in parliament.
“Cameron’s plan… is to declare victory, cut another deal with Nick Clegg, and sit tight, backed by a media barrage and regardless of whether their parties are outnumbered by an anti-Conservative bloc in the Commons.”
Milne questions the Tory mantra that Britain faces a democratic “legitimacy crisis”. It doesn’t, he says. If Miliband were to command a majority in parliament, it would be likely to include Labour, the SNP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SDLP, representing some 44 per cent of the electorate. Add the Lib Dems – which is possible – and this bloc would represent well over 50 per cent of the electorate.
On the other hand, says Milne, if Cameron were to agree a new coalition with the Lib Dems, it would represent only 42 per cent of the electorate (assuming the latest polling is reasonably accurate).
Milne’s argument has the backing of Lord Gus O’Donnell, the former Cabinet Secretary, who drew up the Cabinet Manual setting out the rules for handing over power. The manual is clear: the leader who can command a majority in the Commons should be the next PM, not necessarily the one with the most seats.
As the manual states: “The ability of the government to command the confidence of the elected House of Commons is central to its authority to govern.”
However, O'Donnell has also pointed out that, constitutionally, Cameron will remain Prime Minister until he resigns, or loses a confidence vote in the Commons.
Under the new fixed term Parliament act, the Opposition – ie Labour - would then have 14 days to see if it can get a confidence vote through the Commons. If it was unable to do so, a second general election automatically would be triggered.
Today’s Times adds weight to Labour fears that the establishment will do its utmost to prevent Miliband from taking power. The paper suggests that the Queen is ready to give legitimacy to Cameron’s minority government by turning up in person to read out the Queen’s Speech on 27 May at the State Opening of Parliament, even if it is clear Cameron will not be able get his programme of legislation passed by the Commons.
The Times says that only a week ago the Palace was taking a different line. It feared the Queen would become embroiled in a constitutional row if she delivered the Queen’s Speech in such circumstances; ideas were kicked about at the Palace for a substitute such as Baroness Stowell, the Tory leader of the Lords, to read it.
But the Queen’s thinking has “evolved” since then, says the Times, after Sir Jeremy Heywood, the current Cabinet Secretary, objected to the plan.
“Whitehall officials feared that the decision to stay away would in itself be a political act, since the Queen would effectively be prejudging the outcome of the vote by MPs."
Yesterday a royal source said that the plan was to go ahead with the speech. “The Queen will act on the advice of her prime minister,” the source said.
Or could there be a third plot thickening? The Queen could always take over the country and run Britain by Royal Prerogative while the squabbling politicians sort themselves out.