Post-election British politics could be a little like tag wrestling. There are conventions and expectations about how the contest should be fought. But it is essentially a free-for-all with no order or pre-set timetable.
One party could still win an overall majority on 7th May, and we could settle back into the familiar assumptions of majoritarian politics. But polls point to another hung parliament, in what may be a transitional rather than decisive election as the UK political system, and maybe the UK itself, fragments.
The best guide is the “Cabinet Manual,” first produced just before the 2010 election, and revised in 2011. This is not really a constitutional rule book, more a statement of current practice which can change in response to events. Four basic principles are widely agreed. First, there has to be a government at all times. Second, the Queen should not be involved in the party battle in any way. Third, the politicians and the parties decide who governs, not the Queen or the civil service. And, fourth, the civil service remains impartial, being available to support the negotiations, but no more. These principles supply a framework for the free-for-all. Crucially, it is expected that the incumbent Prime Minister should remain in office as long as there is uncertainty about who could form a government. Hence, Gordon Brown was, despite the tabloid jibes, no squatter over the key weekend in May 2010, but was doing his constitutional duty, which coincided with Labour’s political ambitions until at least the last few hours of his premiership.
But remaining in office during uncertainty is not the same as having the first go at forming a new government. In 2010 David Cameron, the Leader of the Opposition, took the initiative on the day after polling with his approach to the Lib Dems. And, of course, within a day, talks started between Labour and the Lib Dems. It could be even more complicated this May, especially if the Lib Dems do not win enough MPs to provide an overall…