The General Election Horserace: Why 280 seats for the Tories is the key number

by George_East on March 23, 2015

Unknown-4Save for Opinium’s poll for The Observer on Sunday, it would appear that George Osborne’s absurdly over-praised budget (how many ‘he’s shot Labour’s foxes’ articles is it possible to write?) has made precisely no impact on the polls.  With six and a half weeks to go things are pretty much where they have been since the beginning of the year.

The two key points being firstly that Labour are getting absolutely creamed in Scotland and appear to be making no impact in closing the gap with the SNP at all (an extreme reading of the ICM Scotland poll for The Guardian today would see Labour reduced to 2 seats) and secondly that in the UK as a whole the polls are pretty much neck and neck (which means by definition that Labour is up by a fair distance over its 2010 performance in England and Wales).   By virtue of the distribution of votes across the seats, if Labour’s Scottish nightmare wasn’t happening, it would be in a prime position to get most seats (even if it was a couple of points behind in the popular vote).  In fact with the Scottish position, the Tories are favoured to end up with most seats as most votes by most of the election prediction sites (ElectoralCalculus being the notable exception).

However being a few seats ahead on May 2015 may not be enough.  The critical thing is the parliamentary arithmetic between plausible groups of party groupings.   And on that the Tories don’t have a huge amount of options.  However, as I demonstrate below, they probably only need to end up on about 280 seats to be in prime position to continue in government, and it remains, in my view, hard to see how they won’t do that.

The starting point is, assuming (as I think we safely can) that Sinn Fein don’t take their seats, 323 is the magic number (not 326) to be able to guarantee surviving a confidence vote in the Commons and thereby to be able to form a government.    The analysis below concentrates on how the Tories get there rather than how Labour do, on the simple grounds that if the Tories don’t, then that will be because Labour do.

The potential Tory ‘coalition’

I use coalition advisedly.  It is not meant to suggest that there will be a formal coalition in the way we have it now but rather those parties who are inclined to support David Cameron remaining in office as Prime Minister.

1. The Democratic Unionist Party – The DUP currently have 8 seats, but are likely to increase that by 1 seat (Belfast East – lost in 2010 as a result of the scandal surrounding Peter Robinson).   For all of the rhetoric around the bedroom tax, the DUP are by virtue of their social conservatism and anti-Europeanism much more inclined towards the Tories than to Labour.   Although it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the DUP would back a Miliband government, in reality it is likely to be a poor second choice for Nigel Dodds.


2. The Liberal Democrats – All of the pre-election rhetoric coming from the Lib Dems is that they would prefer to continue with the current coalition than do a deal with Labour. This is a position which seems strategically mad as it will condemn them to forever be the minor party of the centre right (a position which saw their sister party in Germany, the FDP, lose its representation in parliament altogether in the most recent German elections – what, after all is the point, particularly if you have a broadly social liberal main party of the centre right). Ed Davey has invented a new constitutional convention that ‘requires’ the third party in seats (which the Lib Dems almost certainly won’t be given the rise of the SNP) to first speak to the party with the most seats. He has also suggested that the Lib Dems would veto any attempts by Labour to repeal legislation like the Health and Social Care Act, which are likely to be red lines for Labour. Clegg and Alexander have also made it as clear as it can possibly be that they would prefer to be part of a Tory led grouping even if the consequent of that ultimately may be the withdrawal from the EU and ECHR.     All bets could be off if Clegg and Alexander lose their seats (but although the latter is likely, the former seems still to be a long shot), as Tim Farron, the next leaded in waiting, clearly takes a different view (recently giving the Lib Dems a mark of 2/10 for their role in the coalition).   However as of now I think we can go as far as saying that unless it is impossible for the Tories to reach the total with Lib Dem support and unless Clegg loses his seat, the Lib Dems are firmly in the right hand column.

The Lib Dems are mostly showing in the mid 20 seats in the election prediction sites. My best guess is that they are more likely to be around the 30 mark.

3. UKIP – Red UKIP (the movement within the party to play a populist left card on economics and the NHS to attract white working class voters) appears to have been abandoned now, with Nigel Farage positioning the party back where he is most comfortable: to the right of the Tory Party. He has set out his terms for backing Cameron – an earlier referendum. Notably he has not set any terms to support Labour. With his ever louder whistles on immigration, it is hard to imagine how Labour could do a deal with Farage without splitting the party.   However, UKIP do appear to be fading a little in the polls. My best guess at the moment is that they will get 4 seats (the two by-election gains, Thanet South and Thurrock).

Thus the Tory coalition parties on this analysis will add around 44 seats to the Conservative total.  It follows that the Conservatives themselves should be home and dry if they get 280 seats.  Although the maths here is likely to change a little if the Lib Dems under shoot 30 seats, it must be remembered that in many of the Lib Dems vulnerable seats the Tories are the challengers so the net effect is not likely to shift very much.

280 is the magic number.

The minor parties who won’t support the Tories

1. The SNP (35-50 seats) – The SNP have made it clear that they will not under any circumstances do a deal with the Tories. The consequence of this is that they can either be complete wreckers (ie voting down a government of either colour) or back Labour.   Although enormous pressure is coming on Ed Miliband by a rattled right wing press (who struggle to understand why the electorate is not doing what they are telling it to) to rule out any kind of deal with the SNP, it is difficult to see what, in practical terms, choice either party will have if Labour + SNP is sufficient to hit the magic 323. Will either party’s supporters forgive them for letting the Tories in?

2. SDLP (2-3 seats) – Labour’s Northern Ireland sister party is all but guaranteed to support Labour.

3. Plaid Cymru (2-3 seats) – Similarly to the SNP, it is pretty much unthinkable that Plaid Cymru, who position themselves to Labour’s left, will support the Tories.

4. Greens (1 seat) – Caroline Lucas, who is a banker to retain Brighton Pavillion, won’t support the Tories.

5. Sylvia Hermon – Sylvia Hermon who sits for Northern Ireland’s wealthiest constituency, North Down, resigned from the Ulster Unionists because they linked up formally with the Conservatives. Given this history and the fact that she mostly votes with Labour in the Commons, it is difficult to see how she will back the Tories.

6. George Galloway – say no more.

So if there are fewer than 280 Tories  or 280 Tories and fewer than 30 Lib Dems, then Ed Miliband will probably squeak over the line.  But realistically, how likely is that?


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

John Stone March 23, 2015 at 6:07 pm

For all Clegg or Laws might want to stand with Cameron, I’m not sure the rest of the Lib Dem party will. However you look at it, they are going to be feeling pretty chastened on May 8th. My guess will be the Lib Dems will be reluctant to join a formal coalition with either party.


George_East March 23, 2015 at 11:28 pm

John, I agree with that but that’s not the question. The test is simply would they vote against a vote of confidence. In my view the Lib Dems won’t vote against Cameron if Clegg remains leader coalition or not.


Green Christian March 23, 2015 at 7:25 pm

It’s not quite as simple as that. The Lib Dems have said they wouldn’t do a deal that includes UKIP. If they keep to that pledge, then that raises the number of seats Cameron needs to get.


George_East March 23, 2015 at 11:01 pm

That is true Green Christian but misses the point I was trying somewhat ineptly to make. The question is who would vote for a motion of confidence. Formal deals with UKIP don’t need to be done, just that they don’t vote Cameron down. I have seen nothing to suggest Nick Clegg would not be prepared to share a division lobby with UKIP. It doesn’t take anything else.


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