In the event of a hung Parliament…

In March, the Justice Committee of the House of Commons published a useful short report on Constitutional processes following a general electionIt is as useful for the evidence given to it as it is for the substance of the report.  In case there is a hung Parliament, the evidence – from former Cabinet secretaries Lords Butler and Turnbull, Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Peter Riddell and current Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell – is well worth reading.  The Committee was especially interested in the draft chapter governing government formation drawn up by Sir Gus.

One small point of terminology.  The Committee favours using the term ‘no overall majority’ in place of a ‘hung Parliament’, since it regards it the former as more accurate and contains fewer pejorative connotations.  However, this particular recommendation appears, as yet, not to have caught-on. 

The same point can be made about its suggestion that the term ‘caretaker’ should be used to cover the principles governing the period from an election until a new government that clearly has the confidence of the new House of Commons has been returned.  It regards the term ‘caretaker’ as “clearer and more meaningful than ‘purdah’ and should be used in formal guidance”.   My experience, which I am sure is not uncommon, is that whenever I mention ‘purdah’ to a general audience, they (not surprisingly) have no idea what the term means.

Both seem reasonable suggestions, though I suspect the existing terms (especially hung Parliament) will be difficult to displace.  Are there better alternatives than ‘no overall majority’ and ‘caretaker’ principles?


About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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8 Responses to In the event of a hung Parliament…

  1. Carl.H says:

    It`s too late the phrase ” Hung Parliament” has stuck and purdah sounds too much like purgatory and I expect has the same meaning for some politicians.

  2. A civil servant says:

    Do you agree with the Conservative challenge to the doctrine, advanced in Sir Gus’s draft chapter, that the incumbent PM has both a right and a duty to remain in office until he is in a position to advise the Queen either that he can meet the House, or to send for somebody else?

    • Croft says:

      I must say I’m not convinced by the implication that the PM should stay on even if they have clearly not won simply because they have not technically unequivocally lost. That way another party could win 320 seats and Brown is still be at liberty to try to form a coalition. Personally I think the largest party is entitled to try to rule as a minority or form a coalition first not the old PM cling on until he loses a vote of confidence which is the only way to force the PM to quit.

    • Lord Norton says:

      A civil servant: The draft chapter produced by Sir Gus O’Donnell draws together the conventions and principles covering the event of a hung Parliament. The only new element, which I think would gain general endorsement, is that the period of purdah extends, in the event of an indecisive election outcome, to the formation of the new Government. Croft’s comments demonstrates that others may take a different view of what the situation should be as regards the appointment of a new Prime Minister, but the draft chapter succinctly adumbrates the position as it stands.

  3. ladytizzy says:

    If the aim is to make certain expressions easily understood by the general public, sport is your friend. For example, change caretaker/purdah to ‘transfer window’ and hung parliament to ‘penalty shoot-out’.

    Try these out on Sir Gus and watch his reaction.

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