Like most things in politics, if you look around you tend to find that something thought of as extraordinary and unprecedented has happened before. Or something very like it.
It may be no accident that John McDonnell – one of the principal architects of Labour’s remarkable resurgence – and Jeremy Corbyn sound like they’ve been following the 1974 example, the last time Britain had a hung parliament and the formation of a minority government. They’re of an age to remember it well. McDonnell often speaks of it. They’ve been doing their history homework.
You can see the attractions of this story from long ago, and some uncanny parallels. The then Tory prime minister, Ted Heath, had a reputation of buckling under pressure, chaotic decision-making and a taste for U-turns, an interesting echo from history. Faced with a miners’ strike, he decided to strengthen his mandate – he already had a working majority of 40 plus and another 18 months for his government to run – so called an early snap election. He asked the question “Who Governs Britain?” so he could take on the unions; just like May wanted one to take on the EU. Both found that the British public decided the general election wasn’t going to be about that but rather about the economy, public services and the usual issues. Labour won on a pretty left-wing manifesto.
On 28 February 1974, Heath lost, but he messed around for a few days trying to cobble together a deal with the Liberal Party to stay in power. Like Theresa May, Heath was a stubborn man who liked the job. In the meantime the Labour leader, a wily old fox, simply ruled out any deals at all with other parties and sat and waited for Heath's efforts to collapse. They duly did.
Wilson then formed a minority government, and was careful to only introduce measures that wouldn’t immediately attract automatic and rabid opposition from the Tory benches. For their part, the Conservatives and the liberals were very unwilling to inflict another election on the public only a few weeks later. So Heath ordered his MPs to abstain, and Labour got their Budget through.
This, I think, is what Corbyn and McDonnell have in mind. Going back to the 1920s there are also examples of parties that come second in the Commons ending up forming a minority government. They will indeed watch and wait…
Wilson also calculated, brilliantly, that having a Labour government in power and dishing out the bribes to the electorate would help cement support. He also understood the Tories would be lumbered with Heath. Not knowing when the election would come they found it awkward to replace their failed leader – and he was determined not to budge anyway. Thus he could toy with the Conservatives. How much would Corbyn and McDonnell love to do that?
What happened next? Wilson called an election for October, and won, but by a tiny wafer thin majority. It was enough; it was a majority. Wilson and his foreign secretary then set about "renegotiating” with the then EEC the terms of Britain's entry into Europe, funnily enough, which led to the 1975 "Yes" referendum. (Like 2015-17, but played in reverse).
In February 1975 the Tory party finally decided they’d had enough of Heath, and he was challenged and unseated by Margaret Thatcher. Ten years later, she took the UK into the EU’s Single Market.
Could history be about to repeat itself?
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