The 2015 General Election: Six key questions on what happens immediately after polling day

1. Are we likely to know the next Government by Friday morning? No. Unless the polls to date have been dramatically wrong, or there is a late surge in support for either the Conservatives or Labour (which is possible, but unlikely at this stage) then we will face another inconclusive result, with no party able to form a majority and negotiations over the formation of a government involving two or more parties.

2. If there is no clear result, how long will it take for a new government to form? This will depend on how negotiations will pan out between the various parties. If there is a straightforward deal to be done (eg another Conservative/Lib Dem coalition) then this could happen relatively quickly, but given that the current polls and predictions suggest that a two-party coalition deal is unlikely, this process is likely to take longer than the five days it took to form the government in 2010. There are, however, a number of deadlines to which any prospective government must work to:

  • The first key date is Monday 18 May when the new Parliament meets for the first time. According to official guidance issued by the Cabinet Office, the incumbent government is entitled to wait until this date to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons (ie have more MPs that are supporters than opponents) or resign if it becomes clear it cannot command that confidence and there is a clear alternative
  • The second key date is Wednesday 27 May – the date of the Queen’s Speech. A prospective government must show it can obtain the votes it needs to pass its programme of proposed legislation on this date
  • The timetable may be further complicated in the event of a vote of no confidence in a government from 18 May onwards. In that case, there is a 14 day period in which a new alternative government can attempt to win a confidence vote before a second election will be called (see below)

3. Will the leader of the largest party become prime minister and form a government? Not necessarily. The key issue is who can command the support of the House of Commons. The question over who is the largest party in terms of votes or seats is actually of secondary importance (though it may be an important factor in terms of negotiations between the parties – see below). It becomes a numbers game. Who can get the backing of enough MPs – from any political party – to vote through new laws without being defeated by its opponents? A government needs 326 votes in the Commons to form a majority, though in reality, it could survive a confidence motion with slightly fewer votes. A key development in this process is the decision by the SNP to vote against any Conservative-led government. This means that the Conservatives will need to win several more seats than Labour in order for them to realistically form a government – most likely in the region of 15-20 seats.

4. What are the possible scenarios in the event of a hung parliament? Whilst post-election negotiations are likely to be complex and fraught, it is possible to predict the most likely scenarios, based on what the various party leaders have said about who they would be prepared to work with:

  • Likely scenario 1 – A David Cameron-led ‘Centre-Right’ Government: This would potentially involve a deal between the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and, possibly, UKIP. This deal will need the support of at least 323 MPs in order to survive a confidence vote.
  • Likely scenario 2 – An Ed Miliband-led ‘Centre Left’ Government: This could involve an arrangement between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and other smaller parties (Plaid Cymru, Greens and SDLP). Miliband has publicly ruled out ‘a deal’ with the SNP, but this does not necessarily stop the SNP voting with a Miliband government (and if this occurs, it is likely to involve a degree of brinkmanship between the parties).
  • A further complication occurs if both scenarios appear viable after polling day. Then it is likely to become a case of ‘first mover advantage’ as to who gets to form a government. In this case, the Liberal Democrats will again play a crucial role as ‘king makers’. The question of ‘legitimacy’ would become an important point at this stage – with arguments made about who is the largest party and who has the right to govern.

5. What individual constituency results should we look out for on Election night?  In determining this Election, the key battleground remains between Labour and the Conservatives. Labour will need to win a number of key marginal seats off the Conservatives in order to be in a position to form a government (eg Hastings, Brentford & Isleworth and Nuneaton). But arguably the key constituency to watch is Sheffield Hallam, current seat of Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. Recent polls have suggested that Nick Clegg is in danger of losing his seat to Labour. If Clegg was to lose, it could significantly change the position and role of the Liberal Democrats in post-election negotiations and the composition of the future government. Other key constituencies to look out for would be those in Scotland, where the SNP could defeat a number of high profile Labour and Liberal Democrats MPs and South Thanet, currently contested by UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

6. Is there likely to be a second election this year? It is possible, but would be difficult. Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, there will not be another general election until 2020 unless one of two things happens; either two thirds of the Commons would have to vote for an election; or the government would have to lose a vote of confidence, and 14 days would have to pass without an alternative government winning a vote of confidence. The first case is unlikely (it would require both Labour and Conservative MPs to vote for an early election), the second case is possible but would require a complete breakdown in negotiations between the parties to form any alternative form of government.

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