Boris and Wolf: The two best arguments in favour of a hung parliament

by Stephen Tall on February 12, 2010

Two articles by broadsheet columnists on the prospect of a hung parliament bookended this week. In their contrasting ways, both made a convincing pitch for the attractions of neither Labour nor Tories ending up with an overall majority at the next general election.

First up is Martin Wolf from the Financial Times, writing today that Britain can love hung parliaments:

The bogeyman of a hung parliament is being used to terrify British voters. What is needed, it is argued, is a government with a strong majority, to rescue the UK from the threat of national bankruptcy. This is nonsense. The UK does not face national bankruptcy and, if it did, would not need strong single party government to save it. Has everybody forgotten that in the gravest crisis ever faced by the UK, Winston Churchill governed with a coalition? Why is the present crisis so very different? So poorly has single-party despotism governed the UK that I would welcome a coalition or, at worst, a minority government.

And Martin might also have added that the last time this country faced a financial crisis as grave as the current one – the 1930s – coalition government was also the flavour of the day.

But, wait, there’s more:

No serious person denies that the country confronts a huge fiscal challenge. Among those serious people are, of course, the leadership of the Liberal Democrats. I cannot be the only person who believes that Vince Cable, the party’s shadow chancellor, is far better qualified to address this challenge than any current member of the Conservative front bench. Indeed, the latter has blown worryingly hot and cold over its elusive plans for fiscal stringency.

Which seems the right moment to bring in our second broadsheet columnist: Boris Johnson. Writing for the Telegraph on Monday, BoJo bemoaned the media’s occasional mentions of the Lib Dems:

Can anyone explain the current ubiquity of Nick Clegg? … It’s because the media are obsessed with the idea that there is going to be a hung parliament – and that Clegg will be the kingmaker! In this fantasy world we go back to a 1970s-style Lib/Lab coalition in which Gordon Brown remains Prime Minister, shamefully clinging on to Downing Street with the help of the Lib Dems, while Cleggie and (say) Vince Cable are rewarded with seats at the Cabinet table. It goes without saying that I think the media are wrong to be talking up this ghastly prospect.

Vince as Chancellor: a ghastly prospect, eh, Boris? London’s mayor so clearly has his finger on the popular pulse.

What Boris has described is, of course, the Tories’ worst nightmare: a Lib Dem who is so patently more competent than their own shadow chancellor that it hurts them. But for the rest of the UK – the voters who will actually decide the election – the prospect of the Lib Dems holding the balance of power is probably quite an attractive one.

Of course it comes laden with potential pitfalls for our party, but let’s just look at this from the voters’ perspective for now. And from their vantage, Martin Wolf is right: there’s no reason to worry about a hung parliament. In fact, they may enjoy it a whole lot more than the thought of five more years of Gordon’s stale nothingness, or a flimsy government with Dave as titular head dominated by his party’s right-wing base. As Martin pithily concludes:

Given the task ahead, government by whim and by whip is just not good enough.