Whether it’s their intention or not, the voters may be about to weaken executive government.
Take three ingredients: a truly hung Parliament; no chance of a formal, durable coalition, and the Five Year Parliament Act, and what do you get? A shift in power from executive to legislature, meaning many of the customs and cultures of recent British governance are set to be challenged.
It looks like the ingredients are indeed there.
There has been no real poll movement since the campaign got under way, and little realistic prospect of any decisive shift in the final week.
The implied Parliamentary arithmetic alone diminishes the prospect of a coalition resembling that of 2010-15. Then add in the pre-poll party political manoeuvring and the prospect diminishes even further.
Pre-2010, we might therefore have been contemplating some short-term administration, limping along until the first opportunity for a relieving dash to the polls arrived. However, if the Five Year Act stays in place, that isn’t going to be how things pan out at all.
And so, the strong likelihood is that one of the largest parties forms a minority government. There may be the lifeline of a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement, and there may even be some form of informal policy agreement covering a number of key areas. But it is all way short of a formal coalition commanding a majority and sharing out the ministries.
The government’s programme will be subject to securing majorities in the Commons – where no government majority exists, and support through the House of Lords, invigorated by the absence of a clear mandate for the government.
So the scales of power will tilt away from the executive and towards Parliament.
There are four likely consequences.
The power of the whips will diminish: The minor parties will bargain with the government for their support on any given measure. Sub-groups within the major parties are unlikely to witness this power to influence without also wanting to taste it themselves. The old whip pressure of ‘the government’s programme must get through’ won’t work so well, where that programme is being bargained issue by issues any way, and where the government cannot fall simply by losing a vote on a measure.
Backbench MPs will be more assertive: If – as indicated – the election shows voters discriminating more at a local level, and not moving en bloc, then re-election depends more on local delivery than on the general fortunes of the party. MPs will be more inclined to look for, and take, opportunities to demonstrate independence of thought through votes.
Commons committees will be more assertive: The investigative select committees, which have grown in power already, will see the opportunity to flex even more political muscle. There will be more opportunities for agenda setting as opposed to simply scrutinising executive decisions already taken. Bill committees – which scrutinise measures line by line – will have far greater opportunities to amend legislation, given that there will be no in-built government majority.
The Lords will be more assertive: The upper chamber has already been flexing its muscles during the term of the outgoing collation, reflecting its increased professionalism and the growing influence of the cross-benchers. However, the Lords is traditionally constrained by the popular mandate of the government, but if the government lacks that mandate, the Lords will assert a constitutional duty to revise and amend as it sees fit.
For an executive that has grown used to exerting near total control over Parliament, all this will be something of a cold shower.
But all it does, in one sense, is push back against the steady weakening of Parliament over recent decades, which was the result of the dominance of the modern two-party system, combined with the growing power of the state.
However, the ghosts of the nineteenth century who haunt the Palace of Westminster, may look at the new Parliament with a sense of comfortable familiarity.
It’s the rest of us who will have to start adjusting to new and different ways of doing things.