WHAT happens if David Cameron has more MPs than Ed Miliband, come the morning of May 8, yet neither side has an overall majority? Does that mean the Tories must form the next government, albeit a minority one? We’ve actually been here before.
In 1923, the Tories under steel tycoon Stanley Baldwin had been in power for barely a year. Before that, they had been in a governing coalition with the Liberals. But this marriage had lost the leftish Liberals a lot of popularity, causing them to split into warring factions at the 1922 election, so letting the Tories take power. Labour was still too small to count.
Stanley Baldwin (who, amazingly, does look a bit like his actor namesake, jowly Alex Baldwin) was on the right of his party. He was a supporter of “protection” – keeping out cheap foreign goods by erecting tariff barriers. Backing protectionism was the equivalent of being a euro-sceptic today, and divided the Tories. Baldwin had seized control of the party in a coup and his control was uncertain. Besides, most of the Tory press was anti-protection, as were the Liberals. So Baldwin gambled on calling an early election to destroy his critics. This move backfired big time.
In the general election of 6 December 1923, the Tories lost 86 seats. However, they were still the largest single party, with 258 seats. Now, however, upstart Labour, under Ramsay MacDonald, had increased its score to 191. Meanwhile, the Liberals – more or less reunited in defence of free trade, managed third place with 158.
An overall majority required 309 seats in the 616-seat Commons. This arithmetic meant that Labour, which had never been in office, could combine with the Liberals to keep Baldwin (who had the largest single block of seats) out of Downing Street. Now read on.
Still technically Prime Minister, Baldwin returned to Downing Street on the afternoon of Friday 7 December. Later that evening the editor of the Times, Geoffrey Dawson, called on him. The PM told Dawson he intended to offer his resignation, having lost electoral support. Dawson told him to do no such thing and returned to the Times offices, where he wrote a leader urging Baldwin to stay on.
On the Saturday morning Baldwin was visited by Lord Stamfordham, the King’s private secretary. By now, with the backing of the Times, Baldwin was playing for time. He asked Stamfordham to get the King to put off seeing him until the Monday next. Stamforham persuaded the King, and that gave Baldwin all Sunday to mobilise support inside the Tory party for a minority government, until such time as he could call a fresh election.
According to Stamfordham, Baldwin told George V at noon that his first thought had been to resign immediately. “But he found on reflection that there was a strong feeling amongst his supporters that he should meet parliament and that former precedent did not apply in this instance.” Baldwin told the King that he was “absolutely opposed to any coalition”.
The following day, the cabinet endorsed Baldwin’s strategy. The crucial question was whether the Liberals would support the Tories when parliament next met. Baldwin thought this unlikely but was prepared to challenge them to vote him down – with the prospect of Ramsay MacDonald’s mad Bolsheviks entering government. Baldwin told the Archbishop of Canterbury – the C of E still had to be squared politically in 1923 – that “it would be better to let matters take their course”.
By now, Baldwin had recovered his confidence and was in combative mood – not least with media. On 16 December he wrote a note to Lord Carson: “I will never draw down the blinds until I am a political corpse, but, if I do, it will be by an honest blow delivered in open fight and not by a syphilitic dagger from the syndicated press.”
Baldwin clung on to office over Christmas and the New Year, taking advantage of the seasonal parliamentary recess. This despite the fact that Asquith had already announced that the Liberals would not vote for the Conservative government when it came to a vote of confidence in a Tory administration.
Nevertheless, Baldwin went through the constitutional motions, as leader of the largest party and sitting PM. The newly elected parliament met on 16 January 1924, with a Conservative King’s speech. On 21 January, the Tory government was defeated by 72 votes at the end of the King’s speech debate. Baldwin resigned the following morning and Ramsay MacDonald was called to the Palace to become prime minister of the very first (and minority) Labour government.
Will this 1923 scenario be replayed next month, with David Cameron daring Ed Miliband to vote with the SNP to remove the Tories from Downing Street? And will Labour take the bait? Watch this space.