Questioning the legitimacy of a Labour-SNP government and sketching out the draft of a Tory Queen's Speech: it feels a lot like we're picking up the first clues about what will happen in the critical days after May 7th. And all the indications are it won't be very pretty.
It's not supposed to be like this. Election campaigns are meant to build up to the messy climax of election night, when voters set the country on a decisive course by clearly indicating their will to politicians.
It wasn't like that in 2010 and it's almost certainly not going to be like that in 2015, either. Instead the real politics of deciding who gets to run the country will take place over the course of the rest of the month. The politicians have seen it coming – and today the Conservative leader is putting down a marker about what he might do if/when he falls short of winning outright control of the Commons.
Cameron makes very clear that's not what he's talking about, of course. Writing for the Telegraph, he declares: "Elect a majority Conservative government, and this is what you will get." Yet the blueprint Queen's Speech he's offering could be what you will get if the Tories fall short, too.
That's because in a hung parliament scenario there's no requirement for the prime minister to resign immediately. Quite the opposite – the Queen must always have her advisers and so the PM is expected to stick around until a viable alternative presents itself.
Furthermore, if Cameron were determined to stick around in order to rescue the country, provide stability, save his political career, etc, he is under no obligation to quit until it becomes clear he can't control a majority in the House of Commons. The first time that happens is in votes on the Queen's Speech. Debate isn't set to begin until May 27th and the decisive division wouldn't take place until the following week, in early June.
Let's step back a moment and take a look at the polls as they are right now. There's been some movement in the last week or so; half of them have indicated shifts to the Tories, including today's Survation research for the Mail on Sunday. It put the Tories up three points to 33% and Labour down four to 30%. The Opinium/Observer poll has seen the Tories retain their lead at two per cent, while today's YouGov poll for the Sunday Times gives Labour a two-point lead.
Combined with the expectation of a slight incumbency boost – that same bump the Conservatives have been praying for months for now - a hung parliament with the Tories as the largest party seems a plausible scenario. What happens then? In the face of a Labour-SNP tie-up, would Cameron decide the game was up?
"If we saw a Labour Government propped up by SNP it could be the biggest constitutional crisis since the abdication," home secretary Theresa May tells the Mail on Sunday today.
She's particularly worried about the nationalists propping up Labour, with all the knock-on consequences for the English votes for English laws issue.
May adds: "There would be a very real feeling was this was something people did not want to see, had not voted for and would find very difficult to accept. It would raise difficult questions about legitimacy. A lot of English people would question that."
The electric word there is 'legitimacy'. Once that gets called into play, the gloves are off. It's a word which has the potential to get picked up all around the world because it implies a new kind of instability.
Home Secretary Theresa May has questioned whether English voters would accept the 'legitimacy' of an SNP-Labour Co… http://t.co/68D3mqKJeu— Nigerian Herald (@nigerian_herald) April 26, 2015
When legitimacy is in play, the constitution – which is perfectly capable of coping with this sort of scenario, let's be clear – becomes suborned to raw politics. Yet the Tories now look like they're prepared to invoke the legitimacy question as part of their bid to remain in power. In the initial days after May 7th, Cameron could decide to press ahead with his Queen's Speech plans regardless.
The big change of logic here is one of expectations about what the prime minister does if he's presented with a fait accompli. If Ed Miliband is equally adamant about leading a minority government of his own, and the SNP stand ready to prop them up, the view before now was that Cameron would accept the inevitable and step aside. That remains an option. But today's detailed Queen's Speech plans provide just a hint that he might prefer an alternative path.
Just look at the detail on offer here, as listed by the Sunday Express:
- A bill to legislate for a permanent tax-free minimum wage
- A bill for small business and enterprise deregulation
- A bill for jobs, creating three million more apprenticeships
- An education bill forcing struggling schools to accept more leadership
- A childcare bill to push through the Tories' 30-hour plans
- A housing bill extending right-to-buy
- A bill to scrap the Human Rights Act and introduce the snoopers' charter
All this hard work could be presented to the British public in a new, post-election phase of the campaign. The Tories would have three weeks or so to win a new air war, one of legitimacy. Could they generate enough heat against a Labour government backed by the nationalists to make such a prospect untenable? They might certainly have a go. And in doing so, the Conservatives would be able to use their Queen's Speech plans as a second manifesto on which to win over public opinion.
The Tories have form, too. Using Commons votes to create dividing lines on fundamental issues is something they're very keen on. We were only saved from a division over English votes for English laws before the election because the Liberal Democrats blocked it. Forcing Labour and the SNP to actually physically go ahead and vote together while the issue was still undecided would be entirely in keeping with the party's approach.
"On May 8th I would walk back into Downing Street, get back to my desk and immediately start driving through a plan of action for the first 100 days of a Conservative government," Cameron declares today. With the legitimacy of the alternative already now being actively undermined, why should failing to win an overall majority – especially if the Conservatives are the largest party - stop him?