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National emerged as the largest party, but with few clear routes to Downing Street
“UK Prime minister Alan Johnson insisted on Monday that he would forge ahead with forming a government, even after his party lost over 30 seats. Commenting on the election Mr. Johnson said that “in politics, you cannot always achieve 100 percent of the goals that you set.” Still, he promised to stick to his second term objectives because “this is what Britain needs.” But Tim Collins of the National Party, suggested that the SDP had avoided the clear-cut defeat forecast by pollsters through "glitz and spin", arguing he should form the next government. In Sunday’s vote, the National Party won 211 of the 497 seats in the House of Commons, against 203 seats for the SDP. While the National Party won the most votes for the first time since Britain’s return to democracy, it fell short of the 249 seats needed for the absolute majority.”
- UK’s Ruling Party Disappointed in Ballot, Raphael Minder, New York Times (2009)
The hardest part about democracy is disappointment, sure getting beaten or imprisoned isn’t fun, but the copper wouldn’t get your hopes up. He’d say he was going to smack you, and then smack you, simpler times. Speaking of getting smacked in the face, very few people were happy with the 2009 election results - Alan Johnson had lost his majority and was more reliant on the Socialists then before, Tim Collins had failed to win a clear mandate despite all the tribulations the SDP had faced. Even the third parties were glum, the Alternative had watched global capitalism melt down around them and only gained one measly seat, meanwhile the Reform Party had spent millions of pounds for fourth place, not even on the podium. RISE had lost over half it’s MPs and the SNP had only managed to pick up three of RISE’s eight dropped legislators.
Everyone was depressed, exhausted and thoroughly annoyed at each other, such is the joy of democratic engagement. There was no time to sulk however as an invisible clock began to tick down. Politicians of all parties knew they had limited time to get some sort of functioning administration together before the military got bored and decided to march on Whitehall and shell Glasgow for old times’ sake. Collins, as leader of the largest party seemingly had the best shot at forming a government, but he found a lot of doors slammed in his face. Shockingly neither the Alternative or RISE wanted to work with him so some sort of frankenstein nationalist/communists alliance (Jean-Pierre Faye eat your heart out) wasn’t going to happen. Both Reform and the SNP were open to working with National, but not working with each other, so that route was a non-starter, so Collins’ only real path to Downing Street was hand in hand with Alan Johnson.
“Britain’s stunned political parties looked for a way forward after an election that gave none of them a parliamentary majority. “The winner is: Ungovernability,” ran the headline in the London Evening Standard. The country is confronting deadlock in the next few weeks as sworn enemies are forced to work together to form a government. The results left the governing left-wing bloc of Prime Minister Alan Johnson without a majority in the House of Commons. Financial markets fell at the prospect of a stalemate pushing Britain's borrowing costs higher. Johnson has the difficult choice of trying to agree a “grand coalition” with Opposition Leader Tim Collins or striking a deal with regional Separatists. Collins admitted on Tuesday he had “come first but not won” the crucial elections and asked parties to join him in forming a government.”
- Britain seeks path out of election impasse, Al Jazeera (2009)
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Johnson wasn't going to give up the premiership without a fight
Johnson’s path to Downing Street was equally murky, assuming he could get the Alternative back on side (and that was a big if) he would need at least two other parties to get over the line. The Reform Party was the obvious choice but they had been established in direct opposition to the Alternative’s perceived radicalism. Brown had said several times on the campaign trail she wouldn’t support a government involving any far-left or separatist parties, and nothing she said after election day indicated she had changed her mind. The other option was working with the “Celtic Alliance '' of the SNP and Plaid, both countries would demand extra funding for their provinces, further powers and even an independence referendum. Swinney was likely to play hardball and cooperating with the separatists would be unthinkable for many in the SDP.
Johnson approached Meacher first, in the talks lasting several days Johnson managed to talk Meacher down from a position of “full communism immediately” to three key pledges. Firstly, a cap on the pension age, keeping the retirement age to 65 throughout the parliament. Secondly, no cuts to corporation tax and finally a 400 euro payment to the long term unemployed to prevent Britain’s growing jobless population from falling into poverty. In return for these pledges Meacher agreed to keep the confidence and supply agreement in place with the SDP, voting alongside the Social Democrats in confidence votes, including the budget.
With the Alternative pact signed, sealed and delivered Johnson once again led the largest bloc in parliament, with this momentum he could make an approach to the unruly Celts and attempt a last desperate dash back to Downing Street. Seeing his political capital fall through his fingers, Collins made a last minute gambit. He held a eleventh hour press conference where he announced plans for National to “bring the country together in a time of crisis” National proposed a continental style grand coalition stretching both left and right, to steer the country through the financial crisis. Collins called on the Social Democrats to put party politics aside and come to the negotiating table for the sake of national unity and to avoid a prolonged period of uncertainty.
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Mountbatten's dictatorship had started with a "national unity government"
Collins signed his speech off with the now infamous line “Mr Johnson, the future of democracy as we know it is in your hands”. Alarm bells went off across Westminster, many perceived the speech, especially the last line as a threat. Appearing on the John Simpson Show, Alternative Deputy Leader Diana Abbott described Collins’ speech as “get on board or our mates send the tanks in - it’s a soft coup!”. The “coup clock” as SDP party insiders called it, was ticking closer and closer to midnight. Johnson’s options were narrowing; he could risk it all on a deal with the separatist parties, or he could let the “soft coup” happen. The postie from an Inner London Council Estate had been bombed, shot at, bribed, threatened and beaten in the name of democracy, was he ready to do it all again?
“It's quite hard, at a time when most politicians appear to have popped out of the womb yelling for a Hansard, to imagine a prime minister who was once a postman. It's quite hard to imagine a prime minister who was, from the age of 12, brought up by his 15-year-old sister in a council flat, and left school at 15. It's quite hard, but it shouldn't be, because our Prime Minister is Alan Johnson. This is a man who cares about the kinds of people who don't grow up dreaming of Downing Street. "We were in a bar the other night," says his aide and I overheard someone saying 'There's someone famous over there, but I don't know his name'". Johnson laughs. "I guess," he says, "I'm never going to make it now". To a second term, I ask, or as a rock star? Alan Johnson flashes me a smile. "Both," he says, and quite a big part of me wishes he was wrong.”
- An Interview with Alan Johnson, Christina Patterson, The Independent (2009)
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"Ours not to reason why, ours but to do and die" by Alfred Lord Tennyson was a popular saying among the Junta era military