Boris Johnson has inadvertently taught us the greatest skill in politics: compromise | Martin Kettle

The prime minister’s failure to get his way has been an inspiring case study in the limits imposed by a hung parliament

Before we all charge off into the electoral unknown, let us remember some realities that are at risk of being left behind in the rush. In the 30 years before 2010, no British general election produced a hung parliament. In the nine years since 2010, two have done so. Nothing about this is predictive for 12 December. But it is clearly within the bounds of possibility that there could be a third hung parliament – and a fourth Conservative government in this decade without an overall majority.

“Single-party government is the British norm,” wrote the political scientist David Butler in a 1978 book, Coalitions in British Politics, that presciently considered what might happen if that norm were ever to change. Forty years on, change has come. In this election at least seven British parties, and three more in Northern Ireland, could win seats. So the new norm could easily continue, recur or perhaps even become more entrenched.

It is not as if multiparty politics is from Mars. Coalitions or minority governments are commonplace in Europe. They exist closer to home too: in the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolved institutions, and in more than a quarter of English local authorities. Different electoral systems contribute to this, but these are emphatically not the only explanation. We live in a Britain of disintegrating and lighter political loyalties.

As a result, single-party British government has been in eclipse. But the majoritarian culture that goes with it is alive and well, and living in Westminster. Listening to the parties this week, you would never suppose that we were living in more fragmented political times than in the past. The calling of the election has triggered an outburst of denialism across the political spectrum.

Alex Salmond made compromise work in Scotland.
Alex Salmond made compromise work in Scotland. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

The Tories are not alone in dreaming of the return of the old norm. Labour is gripped by the same fantasy. “There will be no deals, no coalition,” John McDonnell said yesterday. “If we don’t win an overall majority, we will have a minority government.” If parliament won’t back Labour’s measures “we will go back to the people”. Even the Liberal Democrats are running on the basis that they will “win by ourselves”. They can’t all be right. But they could all be wrong. If they are not thinking about a hung parliament, they are letting the electorate and themselves down.

McDonnell is nobody’s fool, but one is forced to ask where he has been for the last decade. As Boris Johnson has just discovered, an ambitious minority government can quickly become unsustainable. Not only can you not get your bills through the House of Commons, but going “back to the people” can be harder than you might want too. The failure of Johnson’s government to get its way has been an inspiring case study in the limits imposed by a hung parliament.

Ten years ago, while Gordon Brown was still in office, the Institute for Government and the Constitution Unit wrote a report on governing in a hung parliament. Rule one, it said, was that politicians should try not to govern in a majoritarian way: they should recognise from the start that they would need the support of other parties to get their business through parliament, and that to do so would require compromises. It is often overlooked that this is precisely how Alex Salmond chose to govern in Scotland from 2007, and he made it work.

But the lesson has not been learned. Britain’s three most recent Tory prime ministers have all adopted different approaches in the hung parliaments they faced. Only the first of them, David Cameron, went into a coalition, and it is no accident that his government lasted far longer and was much more stable than those that followed. Theresa May opted for a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP, while Boris Johnson, although nominally maintaining the DUP deal, quickly descended into trying to govern as a minority.

The degradation of approach between these three governments, especially from the point of view of stability, is marked. May governed as though she had a majority, even though her party was split on Brexit. She reached out far too late to Labour and the other opposition parties. Johnson went to war with parliament in the name of the referendum, ignoring defeats and refusing significant compromises. The damage he has done to parliament’s standing could be years in the repairing.

There were special factors affecting both May and Johnson. The scope of the directional change involved in Brexit was immense. But the head-on clash between popular sovereignty and parliamentary sovereignty generated by the referendum was the most disabling factor of all. Unless and until the balance between the two is stabilised, these conflicts are not going to disappear, especially if there is a second EU referendum, Scottish independence poll or Irish unification vote in the next parliament – as there could be.

No British government has been elected by a majority of voters since 1935. All the others, even those with so-called landslides, have won with minority support. As party loyalties become looser and voters shop around between more parties, something in this culture will have to change. In the British norm, the absurdity that a government with a majority of seats is entitled to a monopoly of power is surpassed only by the absurdity that a government with a minority of seats is equally entitled to it.

Like it or not, a readiness to compromise remains the greatest skill in modern politics. The next generation of politicians – and of media – need to get used to that, whatever happens on 12 December.

• Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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