German lessons for the British parties
Imagine the headline in The Sun on Friday: ‘Number 10 war: Brutal prime-ministerial battle after election draw’.
Imagine a close election, a flailing centre left leader facing a 20 per cent poll deficit which is whittled down as polling day approaches partly by the emergence of a new political force. The result? A hung parliament where the conservatives get four more seats than the centre-left.
It did happen, in Germany, in 2005. Gerhard Schroder was the SPD’s ageing bruiser who all but fought Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU to a draw. The headline was ‘Kanzler-Krieg’ from the tabloid Bild.
I reported that election - take a look at this report. Not all parallels are valid, of course, but the election night shenanigans in September 2005 are well worthy of some contemplation ahead of what will be the most remarkable 24 hours in UK politics for at least a decade, possibly much longer.
On the night of this election, the exit polls were too close to call. On the night the difference was just three seats. And what happened? Gerhard Schroder appeared on stage at the SPD headquarters in the early hours to claim victory, sort of. It was an amazing act of bravado. He did not say a word. Just appeared amongst cheering crowds, despite having lost 29 seats.
He arched his arms in the air in a triangular shape, grinned incessantly, and gently rotated, nodding his head. Yet he had, just, lost the election, but it felt like a win compared to where he was two months previously.
Angela Merkel on the other hand, looked sour-faced. She was just the leader of the largest party, but her preferred coalition with the FDP liberals, was not possible, because of the emergence of a left wing party.
I raise this possibility because it seems plausible for tomorrow night given the polls. Regardless of the vote share, which the Conservatives seem likely to win, could Mr Brown claim victory with a larger number of seats? If the Conservatives are heading for less than 280 seats, can they really claim ‘victory’, on the night?
At 300-plus seats the Conservatives would probably opt for minority government. Yes there is a list of things they can do without votes: cutting departmental spending, for example. But benefit cuts, pension changes, and tax rises, all require votes in Parliament. Forget VAT going up with minority government.
Formally speaking, Mr Brown gets first go at forming a coalition with the Lib Dems, even if he has a lower number of seats. If Labour have markedly lower number it seems unlikely that such negotiations would even start. But if both Labour and Tories are on 270-something, what happens then? It would be up to Clegg. But I’d expect a key decision tomorrow night will be when or if Cameron decides to claim ‘victory’.
What Germany 2005 shows is the importance, right from the outset of defining ‘victory’, and assuming an air of confidence even if those results are somewhat equivocal. I can’t see how the markets will react favourably to this fairly novel experience for the UK. But let’s see.
And don’t forget that the end results of the shenanigans in Berlin? A grand coalition of the two major left and right parties, led by Merkel. It would be fun to see the shadow coalition talks between Unite and Lord Ashcroft.
* Oh and if parliament does hang tomorrow, firstly I have a great Conservative-funded ‘Hung Parliament Party’ rosette, and secondly, I really do recommend the ‘Elefantenrunde’ or Elephant round where the major party leaders sit round a TV studio live as results come in, attempting to start fractious coalition negotiations. Channel 4 puts in an early bid for this!: