Surrendering Morality doesn't produce Electability

by Prof Richard Rose, 1 June 2022

The response of Conservative MPs to Sue Gray's report about goings on in Boris Johnson's Downing Street was pragmatic rather than ethical. In the words of one MP, "It's about electability now, not morality". The justification for this amoral pragmatism is that it works. Because Boris Johnson delivered a big election victory for the Conservatives in 2019, he is assumed to do the same in 2024.

The current Electoral Calculus prediction is that this Faustian calculation won't work: the Conservatives face the prospect of losing both their hold on government as well as their reputation for integrity. If a general election were held today, there is a 93 percent likelihood that the party would fail to win an electoral majority and it's likely that more than one-third of Tory MPs would lose their seats. Such a result would produce the biggest Conservative loss of seats since 1997. Moreover, there is a one in six chance that the Conservatives would win fewer MPs than at any election since 1832.

Probability of Parliamentary outcomes June 2022

Given multi-party competition, there is currently a 14 percent chance that the Conservatives could win the most seats at the next general election but not have a majority. However, to keep control of Downing Street, it would need the support of one or more other parties. However, Boris Johnson's reputation for being untrustworthy means that no Opposition party would want to give support.

The Labour Party currently is odds on to take control of Downing Street if an election were held today. There is a 55 percent likelihood that it would do so with an absolute majority of seats, making it secure in office until 2029. In addition there is a 33 percent likelihood that it would be able to form a government even if it did not have an absolute majority of seats

The Electoral Calculus prediction of Labour being seven seats short of an absolute majority understates how difficult it would be to dislodge it from office. The Conservatives could not do so on their own, as they would be likely to have eighty fewer seats than Labour.

In arithmetic terms six parties would need to combine to produce the 320 votes needed to carry a vote of no confidence against a Labour government with 319 MPs. If seats were distributed as in the central prediction, 52 Scottish Nationalists, 14 Liberal Democrats, 8 DUP, 5 Plaid Cymru and one Green would have to combine to muster the votes needed to eject Labour. Such an unwieldy and uncongenial partnership could only emerge if a Labour government had taken ownership of government failures that it could not blame on its Conservative predecessor and was covered in sleaze. In such circumstances, both moral and pragmatic calculations would encourage MPs of all parties to vote Labour out of office in order to gain more MPs for themselves.

A Labour minority government could remain in office for a full five-year term if one or more of these five Opposition parties abstained from a vote of no confidence because it viewed calling a fresh general election as not in its interest. This calculation would follow if Opposition parties feared that forcing a second election within a year or two of the 2024 ballot would deliver an absolute majority to a Labour government. A Labour government challenged by a no-confidence vote while it was in a mid-term slump could secure five years in office by doing deals with the Liberal Democrats and/or the Scottish Nationalist Party as it did between 1974 and 1979.

Richard Rose is Britain's senior psephologist and an expert on party government. His new book 'How Sick is British Democracy?: a Clinical Analysis' is published by Palgrave.