Per the Wall Street Journal:
A debate about which party would have the most legitimate claim to govern has begun even before polling booths opened.
The Conservatives are forecast to win the most seats, and are likely to claim that gives them a mandate to continue to lead the U.K. for the next five years.
But Mr. Miliband could be in a position to argue that he has a bigger mandate, by drawing on the support of like-minded parties. Such a scenario would be legal and has happened before in the U.K.
Mr. Cameron said on Tuesday that Mr. Miliband would have a “massive credibility problem” if he tried to become prime minister without Labour winning the most seats.
Constitutionally speaking, all this talk of “credibility” and “mandates” is so much self-serving tosh. As a matter of law, it would be entirely reasonable for Ed Miliband to become prime minister if he is able to put together a coalition that gets him over the line — yes, even if his party finishes second overall. How that coalition might operate — and how popular it might be with the people — are important questions, certainly. But, ultimately, those are political, not legal, questions. There is no principle within Britain’s unwritten constitution that could render a government led by the second-place party as “illegitimate” or “lacking in mandate” or “lacking credibility.” This is a numerical issue, and nothing more. If Miliband can make the numbers work — or if he can oust a minority government led by a Tory party that tries to cling to power – he will be golden. Let’s not even hint otherwise.
That being said, it seems likely that Cameron will try to convince the electorate that Miliband is doing the UK a disservice – and likely, too, that he would succeed. In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland writes that, if the Tories were to end up as the biggest single party in the Commons but to find themselves in opposition nevertheless, they would likely
say Miliband had no mandate. They would call him a squatter in Downing Street, insisting he had usurped power. Waving aside the precedent of 1923, when the second-placed party last formed a government, cartoons would appear of Red Ed in the silver medal position on an Olympic podium trying to wrench the gold from David Cameron’s grasp. And that drumbeat would continue and would not be stilled except by a second general election.
In some ways, the drumbeat has already begun. Senior Liberal Democrats are hinting that they couldn’t possibly put Miliband in Number 10 unless Labour is the largest party. To do otherwise would be to defy the wishes of the British people, to support the loser over the winner. Of course this is nonsense, the groundless invention of a new and bogus constitutional principle. But that’s the trouble with an unwritten constitution: you can make stuff up. So long as you say it sonorously and with a sufficiently straight face, no one can tell you you’re flat out wrong.
Indeed they cannot. Politically speaking, though, Cameron has a point. If the polls are correct and the Tories are going to win a plurality of the seats in the Commons, the only good reason for Cameron to leave government is that Labour has managed to do a deal with the SNP and thus commands enough seats to make up a majority. Certainly, a Labour-Lib Dem alliance would be legal. But, as Freedland predicts, it would look peculiar if a Labour party that had won fewer seats than the Tories shacked up with the Lib Dems to form a minority coalition government that consisted of the second- and the fourth-placed contenders.
Realistically, then, if Labour does come second, we will be looking at one of only two likely outcomes: 1) The Conservative party forms a minority government, possibly with the help of the Lib Dems and a few other small parties; or 2) The Labour party combines with the SNP and forms a majority coalition. This latter option, as I’ve noted, would be entirely constitutional. And yet the public’s reaction to such an alliance would almost certainly be ugly — especially in England, where the people are more conservative and where there is a widespread disdain for Scottish nationalism. This being so, Ed Miliband must realize deep down that any scenario in which he becomes Prime Minister will inevitably be fraught with political peril. Over the last couple of days, I have met a good number of people who are voting for the Conservative party not because they like it, but because they do not wish the integrity of the national government to be contingent up on the acquiescence of the Scottish National Party. A good enough Tory showing, they say, would likely lead to another Conservative-Liberal alliance, and thus keep the Scots out.
Suppose, however, that Britain gets a Labour-SNP coalition – that is, that the country gets an administration that, in pejorative terms, is composed of the runners-up and the secessionists. In such a case, wouldn’t there be more wavering or independent voters who want a second election? And wouldn’t there be more people who are willing to vote for the Tories or for the Liberal Democrats, if only to avoid a repeat of the outcome this time around? Given the hold that the SNP is likely to hold on Scotland — even in the case of a second election – I rather think so.
All of which is to say that, barring a last minute Labour surge or a polling disaster in Scotland, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Ed Miliband’s becoming Prime Minister would help his party in the long term. Potentially, Miliband would be much better off taking a back seat, as to avoid any blame for the impending dysfunction; watching the Conservatives scrabble together a minority alliance or try to go it alone; and then using his position as leader of the opposition to make the strong case for why the Labour party should be given a clear majority next time around. Given the way things are looking, that “next time around” might not be too long coming.