SHAUN CONNOLLY: Uncertain future will alter UK politics

A radical shake-up of the way Britain votes is on the cards following yesterday’s knife-edge election result.

The fragmentation of politics marked by the rise of nationalists and special interest parties such as the Greens has prompted widespread demands to a reform of the voting system.

Britain’s first-past-the-post system has proved popular in the past because it nearly always delivered a clear-cut majority result for one of the two big parties, but voter dissatisfaction with the Tories and Labour has left the country open to widely disproportionate results.

An SNP sweep in Scotland saw the party on course to take between 40 to 50 seats with just around 4% of the vote, while the hard-right Ukip was unlikely to finish with more than three or four MPs, despite polling more than double the Scottish nationalists.

British voters comprehensibly rejected a switch to the alternative vote method of elections after the inconclusive elections of 2010, but experts detect a shift in opinion since then.

With no party set to reach the magic figure of 326 seats in the 650-member House of Commons, Britain is bracing for weeks of horse-trading as incumbent Tory prime minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband competed to form the largest power block.

With parliament set to return on May 18, the new government must present its legislative programme for the forthcoming year, known as the Queen’s Speech, on May 27, with the measures voted upon in the first week of June.

If the Queen’s Speech is rejected, the government will fall and the leader of the opposition will have time to try and form an alternative administration before fresh elections will have to be held in July.

Bookies were expected to take €40m in bets on the outcome of what has been dubbed the “political grand national” due to its unpredictable outcome.

Despite the dramatic rise of the SNP, whose previous best tally of MPs was 11 in 1974, former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond said the election was not about another referendum push.

However, it is likely that the SNP will outline plans for another independence vote in its manifesto for the Edinburgh parliament poll next year.

With both main parties expected to fall well short of a Commons majority when the final seat declares tomorrow, rules governing who can claim power were under intense scrutiny.

The Cabinet Manual rules to which parties must adhere states: “An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.”

Reports have suggested the monarch considered not giving the Queen’s Speech if Cameron put his programme forward before guaranteeing the support of enough MPs.

However, it is understood Queen Elizabeth, a constitutional monarch who remains politically neutral, will give the speech as she has done throughout her reign. To have declined to make the address could have been interpreted as a political move.

If Cameron chooses to press ahead with a Queen’s Speech, only to fall victim to a vote of no confidence, he will officially tender his resignation to the Queen.

An alternative leader will have 14 days to show he or she can command the confidence of a majority of MPs.

Only when the leaders are in agreement will the Queen invite the person who appears most able to command the confidence of the House to serve as prime minister and form a government.

Recent polls suggests Cameron may have the largest team of MPs at Westminster, but that Miliband may be better-placed to survive a confidence motion on the back of votes from SNP MPs with whom he refuses to enter coalition.

Dr Matt Cole, a constitutional history expert from the University of Birmingham, said: “We are faced with the prospect that the incumbent prime minister has as large a share of the vote as last time and quite close to the same number of MPs, and the leader of the opposition has quite clearly failed to match that, and yet the leader of the opposition becomes prime minister, even without incorporating another party in a coalition.”

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