Britain’s next government will be a coalition of parties that hate each other

Hands up for a coalition?
Hands up for a coalition?
Image: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton
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Minority governments and multi-party coalitions are the norm in much of Europe. But in the UK, where the parliamentary system favors larger parties, elections in recent history have been mostly a straightforward battle between the Conservatives and Labour.

Not so any more. Neither party looks set to win an overall majority in the next general election on May 7. But even as a coalition government is looking increasingly necessary, the parties have begun queuing up to profess their dislike of each other.

This week, it’s been the turn of the Scottish National Party. Labour’s Ed Miliband said that a coalition between his party and the SNP would “not happen.” Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, said an alliance between the SNP and his party was “virtually inconceivable.” The SNP, for its part, has vowed never to get into a coalition with the Conservatives.

The rhetoric continues a polarization that developed around the referendum on Scottish independence, narrowly voted down in September 2014. The SNP was the champion of a strong, potentially independent Scotland. And, unusually, the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats all joined forces to keep Scotland in the fold.

That has left a lingering feeling that any alliance with the SNP means support of its devolution goals. But the SNP is stronger than ever, having gained popularity in Scotland from the single­–and relatively simple–issue of independence.

Meanwhile, the anti-Europe UK Independence Party surged into view last year, with some forecasting it could win “dozens” of seats in parliament (estimates now range between 3 and 36 seats). But UKIP’s anti-immigration stance, and a series of scandals, blunders, and mishaps, has made it a potentially toxic partner. The Conservatives have said they wouldn’t enter a coalition with UKIP, though UKIP would enter one with them.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage also said he’d do a deal with Labour. But for Labour an alliance with UKIP, a party at the other end of the political spectrum, seems unthinkable. The Lib Dems have ruled it out as well.

The Green Party, meanwhile, which looked to be gaining popularity earlier this year, is still only on course to win a tiny number of seats. Green coalition members are unlikely to be decisive for any of the parties, but a tie-up between the radical Greens and conservative Tories would be most far-fetched. Odds of a Conservative-Lib Dem-Green coalition are 100 to one, according to one betting agency.

But as one political commentator pointed out, the parties might be protesting too much:

Most polls put Labour and the Conservatives close, each hovering at below 35% of the total vote. A single party needs to win at least half of the 650 seats in parliament to have a majority.

Britain may have to get used to co-ops at the top of politics. In 2010, after the last general election, a coalition was formed for the first time since 1945, between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats.

It has been an uneasy alliance. Neither has ruled out repeating the same arrangement; but the Lib Dems’ popularity has taken a pounding in the last four years, and the party is widely expected to do badly.

If no arrangement is made, some are predicting that May’s election will be just the beginning of a sorry saga: