Many SDP voters opted to stay at home
“The two leading candidates in Britain’s general election agreed on only one thing yesterday – that Brits should vote in great numbers. William Hague, confident of the decisive victory, said on election day that a high turnout would “send a message to the whole world”. David Miliband, reminded the electorate that "Britain is at historic crossroads, and your vote is more important than ever”. And yet nowhere did great numbers of citizens heed their call. The stakes became high in these elections, with Britain staring at the spectre of EU intervention. Yet voter participation was down about 13% yesterday on the 74 per cent recorded in the rather dull elections of 2009. If not voting was a party, it would have clear victory with 39% of the vote. Some of yesterday’ apathy can be attributed to the predictability of the outcome, all opinion polls gave a commanding lead to National.”
- UK rebuffs call to send the 'world a message', Paddy Woodworth, Irish Times (2012)
The exit poll underestimated the wave cresting over the Social Democrats, the party was whipped down to a mere 133 seats. Even if they could get the Alternative, SNP and Plaid back singing from the same hymn sheet they would still be 30 seats short of an overall majority. A David Miliband premiership was mathematically almost impossible, for the first time in seven years, Britain’s social democrats would be returning to the opposition benches. Miliband’s spokesperson confirmed to the press the Social Democrats would not attempt to form a government, instead spending time in opposition for a period of reflection. They would follow sister parties in Spain, Italy and Greece, all being swept from power in the wake of the financial crisis.
This wasn’t to say it was a good night for National, they were still down almost 40 seats. Hague had simply been battered less than Miliband, leading him to win by default. Even with Reform on side, National would still need over a dozen seats to form a functioning government. Most options could be crossed off the list straight away, the Alternative, RISE and Forward Wales would never support a National Government. Instead Hague had three real options, option A was to find some common ground with the SNP. John Swinney said he would support either party in return for Scottish autonomy. Whilst Hague wasn’t instinctively anti devolution, a great deal of his backbenchers were, seeing the SNP as no different from RISE and the SNLA. Swinney was also likely to drive a hard bargain, knowing how damaging a deal with National could be.
Both major parties feared the Alternative's support exploding in a second round of elections
The other two options included option B, a grand coalition with the SDP. Hague could cite the unprecedented crisis Britain faced, standing on the precipice of an EU bailout. Whilst this would give Hague a strong majority, his backbench MPs almost certainly wouldn’t accept it, not to mention the outrage from Social Democrat supporters. Miliband had made it pretty clear he wanted to take his party into opposition. The final option C was going back to the country for a second round of snap elections. Some in Hague’s top team suggested they could squeeze the smaller parties to win a solid majority, but the British people were tired and unmotivated, and the Alternative were in touching distance of becoming a real threat - it was a big risk.
“The SA was considered capable of profiting both from the losses of the SDP and from the emergence of the new OutRage! protest movement, and of entering Parliament with a stronger group than had been the case in the catastrophic election of 2009 (4.8% and 24 seats). In this election, the largest British union, Amicus switched its support from the SDP to the Alternative. Michael Meacher appeared in the campaign as a "parliamentary OutRager" and called on people not to boycott the elections, but to vote for the SA. This was not a cheap campaign stunt, but rather included a serious involvement of the OutRage! movement by the Alternative, as was shown by the process of drafting the party’s electoral programme in which OutRage leaders played a heavy role.”
- The British Alternative’s parliamentary campaign of 2012, Report by Birgit Daiber, Rose Luxemburg Foundation (2012)
Hague decided to try and get his own government together first, starting with the easiest target, the Reform Party. In meetings with Sarah Brown, Hague promised his government would be a cooperative partner in Europe, pledging not to hold any referendums that would distance Britain from the European Union. He also promised to accept the bailout in full to stabilise the British economy. In return Reform MPs would provide confidence and supply to the Hague administration, helping him into Downing Street. The main sticking point during negotiations would be Scotland, Reform had been set up as an explicitly centralist and anti-devolution party, but Hague would need the support of Reform and the SNP to form a government. Brown agreed to soften her stance, stating that the SNP had moved far enough away from the SNLA to be considered a legitimate political party.
The SNP had taken great pains to distance itself from the RISE, the SNLA and other "hard" nationalists
Hague decided to at least try and speak to the SNP first. Hague would dispatch a delegation, led by moderate Surrey MP Philip Hammond, to speak with the SNP’s negotiating team under Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh. The SNP demands were very simple: autonomy for Scotland, with a full Scottish Parliament, and a promise that Scotland would be spared the worst austerity under the EU bailout. Hague couldn’t promise a Scottish Parliament off the bat without collapsing his party, but instead he offered a Referendum on Scottish Autonomy, where both Reform and National would campaign against, this way both Hague and Brown could return to their caucus with a straight face saying they tried to stop Scottish Autonomy, despite the fact polls showed 73% of Scots favoured an autonomous Scottish region.
For over a month runners between National, Reform and the SNP went back and forth in negotiations, questions over how much austerity Scotland would be spared from, and Britain’s closeness with the EU would dominate these discussions. Disquiet on the National benches continued to build as hardliners feared even acknowledging the SNP as a legitimate political party by negotiating with them was the first step in a slippery slope towards Scottish independence. Hague had kept both the voting public and his party on side through obfuscation, keeping his true politics close to his chest. Hague was both a liberal reformer, and a hardliner - a friend to the military, and a champion of civilian democracy. Now William Vague had to play his cards.
“We the people of Britain will deliver, and will base our hope on ourselves, and so build a future for all. My friends, we are now faced with a very thankless task, but it will pass, because our efforts will not be in vain. The storm clouds will be dispelled, we will raise our heads up high and the day will once again dawn when people speak well of Britain. The day when we look over our shoulder and no longer even remember the sacrifices. That is the portrait of our duty. I am well aware that the stage onto which I now step will not be strewn with bouquets but I am used to facing such situations. I have not come this far to seek applause, but rather to try to resolve problems. That is my task and in it I call on the cooperation of all, and I will ask the House of Commons for its confidence. Thank you very much.”
- William Hague’s Victory Speech to Party Faithful (2012)
The Troika wasn't going to wait around, Hague needed a Government fast