Hung parliament back on the agenda

Hung parliaments are back on the political agenda.

With a general election less than seven months away and a couple of recent opinion polls showing Labour narrowing the gap with the Conservatives, there is growing chatter at Westminster that the Tories might not gain an overall majority.

After months in which it was assumed that David Cameron was assured of victory, increasingly seen as the Prime Minister-in-waiting, Labour suddenly senses it might be back in the game after all.

For the Liberal Democrats, a hung parliament holds out the prospect that they could be the king makers - determining whether a battered Gordon Brown could cling on to office or Mr Cameron would enter No 10 at the head of a minority Conservative government.

It is 35 years since a general election produced a hung parliament. In February 1974, the Conservative premier Edward Heath called a bleak general election on the issue of "who governs Britain" in the midst of a damaging miners' strike.

The verdict of the voters was "not you mate!" - though it demonstrated no great enthusiasm either for the return of the former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

As the final results dribbled in on Friday March 1, it looked as if the election could result in a dead heat, or with Labour or the Tories just ahead.

In the end, the Conservatives won the largest share of the vote, but a handful of seats fewer than Labour.

It is a scenario which could well be replicated next May or June - or even in March if Mr Brown decides to go to the country earlier than expected.

At the weekend, Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, sensing a change in the political weather, said the party which got the strongest mandate from the British people "will have the first right to seek to try and govern either on their own or with others".

If the next election results in no party securing an overall majority, constitutionalists are likely to be dusting down a memorandum prepared after the February 1974 election by the then-head of Heath's private office, Robert Armstrong, now Lord Armstrong of Ilminster.

He was the government's chief contact with Buckingham Palace, keeping the Queen in touch with the coalition talks through her private secretary and exploring the role she might be called upon to play.

The 20-page memo, now lodged with the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, recounts the detailed negotiations that took place between Mr Heath and the then-leader of the Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe, over the weekend before he finally tendered his resignation to the Queen at 6.30pm the following Monday, March 4.

On the morning after the election, the Queen was advised that she would not be called upon to take action "unless and until" Mr Heath tendered his resignation. Meanwhile Mr Heath decided that he would open negotiations with the Liberals to see whether they would be able or prepared to form a coalition, or enter into an understanding to support a Conservative government.

In the days before mobile telephones, No 10 had difficulty reaching Mr Thorpe, celebrating his own victory in the West Country. He had been waiting by his phone, "but there was something wrong with it, and it had never rung".

When contact was finally established he agreed to come to London to talk to Mr Heath. Adopting cloak-and-dagger tactics to evade waiting journalists, he donned a country coat and wellington boots over his town suit, walked across three wet fields to a farm, where he was met by a car and driven to Taunton station.

Mr Thorpe was sympathetic, but failed to get the backing of his party for a deal.The Liberals demanded that the Conservatives commit themselves to electoral reform as the price of an arrangement. The most Mr Heath could offer was the commitment to a Speaker's Conference inquiry into the matter.

Lord Armstrong admits he was close to tears at the end of the tortuous negotiations, while Mr Heath confessed he felt worn out. Lord Armstrong went in the car with Mr Heath as he made his final journey to the Palace as Prime Minister.

"On the drive we neither of us said a word. There was so much, or nothing, left to say".

Gordon Brown must be dreading finding himself in the same gloomy situation.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Content and PR

£35000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Mid / Senior

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing digital agenc...

Recruitment Genius: E-commerce Partnerships Manager

£50000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a newly-created partne...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor