Alan Watkins: No 10 is for the winner, not the also-ran

The idea that Gordon Brown might stay in Downing Street at the head of the second-largest party is preposterous. In any event, the Labour Party is facing an abyss which make such thoughts irrelevant

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I have not seen the film The Ghost Writer, but I read Robert Harris's book The Ghost when it first came out three years ago, and highly enjoyable it was too. It is about a hardly disguised version of Tony Blair who has been persuaded to write his memoirs. Most of the action was set in the holiday homes of the eastern seaboard of the United States. The plot turns on the former prime minister's alleged involvement in "waterboarding".

Such is Mr Harris's skill that the retired prime minister, by then spending much of his time in the United States. was transformed into a part-American. As I say, I have not seen the film. But last week Mr Blair turned up on our television screens and I found him speaking with a discernible American accent. It was a clear case of nature imitating art.

Oddly enough, most of the commentators that I read on the subject of Mr Blair's return to his old constituency emphasised his suntan rather than his accent. And, indeed, the former prime minister was appearing before our wondering eyes sporting skin a fetching shade of tangerine.

But international celebrities acquire a patina of glamour. It goes with the job. It is harder to change your accent than it is to acquire a tan. In Mr Blair's case, true, he could go through several keys or registers, depending on the audience he was addressing. But his partial transformation into a citizen of the United States is the strangest yet, and has taken fewer than three years.

With Mr Gordon Brown, however, it is more like a conspiracy to keep him in office in perpetuity. Last week, I thought I was making an innocent joke. It now turns out the idea is being taken with complete seriousness. It mostly derives from a memorandum compiled by the cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell.

The piece of driftwood floating in the wreckage is to the effect that Mr Brown could carry on governing with the support of the Liberal Democrats, in particular if Dr Vince Cable could be persuaded to scramble on board. Moreover, so the theory – or the delusion – goes, Mr Brown could continue in No 10 even if Labour won fewer seats than the Conservatives.

This is silly talk. I am sure Sir Gus does not believe that a defeated prime minister can hang on to office. The settled convention is that the party with the largest number of seats tries to form a government. This has been true since 1929, when Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative prime minister, lost the election to Ramsay Macdonald, the Labour leader. The Liberals under David Lloyd George came third. Baldwin resigned and Macdonald took his place as the prime minister of a minority government.

The Labour government went on its way, not happily exactly, but surviving. It was interrupted by the financial crisis of 1931. Before then, the Macdonald government had been on the point of introducing the alternative vote, which is back in fashion after 80 years.

The foolish talk of the past few weeks comes from Edward Heath's abortive attempt to stay in power in February 1974. Clearly, he should have resigned straight away. Heath tried to stitch together an alliance with the Liberals under Mr Jeremy Thorpe, who is still with us.

Heath's argument was that the margin of seats, four, was narrow, and that the Tories had still won the larger number of votes. What nobody pointed out at the time (at least, I do not remember it) was that, even when the Conservative and Liberal MPs were added together, the prospective alliance to be led by Heath still did not make up a majority of the House. The balance was composed of various miscellaneous members.Similarly, Labour and the Liberals together would still not have amounted to an absolute majority.

At the time, there was a certain amount of indignation in Labour circles, which the Labour leader, Harold Wilson, shared. The cry was: we was robbed. Wilson, however, put on the face of statesmanship, which he could adopt when the occasion seemed to demand it. The prime minister, as Heath continued to be, was (Wilson said) perfectly entitled to form a workable government.

After a few days the charade could continue no longer, and Wilson took his place, wondering what to do next. The obvious thing to do was to have another election, which duly happened after seven months. The second election of 1974 proved a disappointment to Wilson. He thought he would have a reasonable majority. Instead, it was three.

His successor, James Callaghan, lost his own majority almost as soon as he took over at No 10. Even before the formation of the Lib-Lab pact of 1977-78, there was, however, a measure of co-operation between Labour and the various peripheral parties. The heroes of the period were the leader of the house, Michael Foot; the chief whip, Michael Cocks; and his deputy, Walter Harrison, who is still living but remains strangely without honours and awards from the party for which he did so much.

Even so, the Callaghan government of 1976-79 was operating a hung parliament, though it was not called that at the time, even though the term acquired its currency in 1974. Labour, however, had won its elections in February and October 1974. The idea that Mr Brown can carry on governing after losing an election to Mr David Cameron is, frankly, preposterous.

No modern prime minster is entitled to form alliances simply to hang on to office. In 1923, the electors returned 258 Conservatives, 191 L:abour members and 159 Liberals. The minority Labour government came to office in 1924 and lasted only for a few months.

Quite clearly, according to conventional notions, the Conservatives should have taken office as a minority government. Instead, the Liberals put Labour in and withdrew their support later in 1924. There were then five years of Conservative government. Here the old parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals, were, for reasons of their own, trying to stay out of office.

Mr Brown would be trying to stay in Downing Street. If he were to win the largest number of seats, well and good. There would, no doubt, be diverting arguments about whether Mr Alistair Darling should continue at the Treasury or move over to make way for Dr Cable. In any case, what is being proposed is not a coalition, as I understand it, but an accommodation.

The sad truth is that the Labour Party is looking into the abyss. All the stories of the past couple of weeks have about them an element of fantasy. Thus: Mr Brown is to continue as Prime Minister, Mr Darling (or Dr Cable) is to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the moon is made of green cheese. Even Mr Blair's recently acquired accent is preferable to the speculation of recent weeks.

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