Whether or not a single political party can form a government has constitutionally been determined by whether or not it has a majority in the House of Commons, has the 'confidence of the House' and is consequently able to get its political programme through.. If not, then the party with the largest number of MPs is given the first opportunity of trying to establish a working relation with another party to provide that majority. This is what happened in 2010 when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats established a formal coalition that, to the surprise of many commentators, lasted the full five year term. There had been previous coalition governments: the Conservative-dominated one under Lloyd George from 1916 to 1922 and the wartime coalition under Churchill and Attlee during the Second World War. But it was the National Government formed under Ramsay Macdonald in 1931 at the beginning of the depression in the 1930s that is the closest parallel with the government after 2010. Coalition governments have traditionally been formed to deal with some sort of national emergency: the effects of a global economic slowdown or the threat posed by Germany in 1914 and 1939. Once that emergency ended, so did the coalition government—though after 1918 it did continue for a further four years. In each case, some within the political parties involved demurred and went into opposition, something that did not occur after 2010. No one suggested that these coalitions challenged the constitutional legitimacy of parliament.
When the pundits say that the winners of last night’s ‘audience with the party leaders’ was the audience itself, it demonstrates just how detached many people feel—even at this stage of the campaign—that politicians are from ordinary voters and how little their ideas and proposals have been challenged by the public—largely because the public has really not been given the opportunity to do so. Meetings, with the exception of the SNP’s, have been rigorously managed and packed with sympathetic faces. With the emphasis on getting your core voters out, there has been little engagement with people other that supporters and this has made the whole campaign predictably gaff-free and rather dull. The policies that have been put forward and their potential costs have not been spelled out in any real detail. We still do not know which departments will see their funding cut under either Labour of the Conservatives…it’s really a case of voting on a wing and a prayer. Whoever gets the largest number of seats—and every indication is that neither Labour nor Conservative will get an overall majority—government will only be possible by forging some deals with the smaller parties and the bookies’ favourite to do this is Labour.
The target for forming a majority government is generally regarded as 326 seats. In practice, however, the figure is lower than that. Of the 650 MPs elected, you can discount the Speaker and also any Sinn Fein MPs elected as they do not attend Parliament since they refuse to swear allegiance to the Crown. This has been the case since 1918 and there is no indication that the party intends to change this. If Sinn Fein gets five seats, this would mean that having the confidence of 322 MPs would be sufficient for form a majority government…just. Tonight's Newsnight Index suggests that a combination of Labour (269), SNP (50), Greens (1) and Plaid Cymru (4) would get them over the 322 figure and that's without taking the Northern Ireland parties into account. The Conservatives (280), Lib Dems (26), UKIP (1) plus support from the Northern Ireland parties would probably get to around 316 MPs. This has already raised questions about the legitimacy. The former Labour First Minister in Scotland, Jack McConnell, has warned that public opinion might not accept the next government unless it is led by the party with the biggest number of seats. He said: ‘even if Cameron was to lose a few seats, if he still has a few seats more than Labour then public perception will be that he has won. Therefore the SNP argument that everybody else could gang up on him will not work.’