As British voters go to the polls, envoys are clueless as to who will form the next government, with an Embassy snap poll predicting a hung parliament and multiple outcomes.
Only a tiny minority of respondents (7.6%) feel the Conservatives will win the 23 seats it needs to gain an outright majority, harking back to John Major’s surprise victory in 1992.
Not one respondent predicted a Labour majority, due to the “meltdown” in the Labour vote in Scotland following the SNP surge.
Of the remaining 92%, a small majority (41%) thinks the Conservatives will be able to form a coalition with the Lib Dems (and the Ulster Unionists if needed), “but I wouldn’t bet a British pound on it!” joked one Ambassador.
A third (33%) are evenly split between a weak Labour or a Tory Coalition while 16% have tipped Labour or the Conservatives forming a minority government with the help of an array of smaller parties.
Despite Labour leader Ed Miliband’s vow not to do deals with the SNP, a small minority (7%) believes Labour will consider building a coalition with the Scottish Nationalists.
Ultimately it will be the party that can command the confidence of Parliament that will form the next government and that will depend, in large part, on who can accommodate the ‘red lines’ that parties claim they will insist on when voting for a government programme. And if their demands are not met, they may abstain.
“If the SNP abstain in a confidence vote that could hand the Conservatives the House,” a senior British mandarin mused.
FPA Director Christopher Wyld, at a recent meeting of the Diplomatic Press Attaché Association of London (DPAAL), also pointed out that if the “hated” Tories remain in power this may, paradoxically, suit SNP Leader Nichola Sturgeon because it would create more momentum behind the independence cause.
Shaky or solid?
It’s unlikely a new government will be formed within days. “This time around, the leaders will have to consult their parties rather than doing quick deals behind doors,” predicts Wyld.
How stable will the resulting government be? Here diplomats have more of a clear view: a Tory-Lib Dem coalition would be moderately stable to rock solid, while envoys predict that a Labour government of any stripe ranges from fairly stable to fairly shaky depending on the influence wielded by the SNP.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage has already branded the first-past-the-post system “bankrupt” and calls to change to proportional representation will be loud if minority parties fare badly.
In its first years the new government will be preoccupied by an in-out EU referendum, irrespective of the winner. A Labour-led government may postpone but cannot avoid the issue, claims Dr Robin Niblett of Chatham House. Whether a bandaid-ripping early vote or one further down the line is more dangerous for a BREXIT is hard to predict, says Niblett.
Timing will be critical and a campaign to stay in the EU, run by a weak Tory or Labour government could be fatal, warns Wyld.
The vexed issue of Scottish independence “is not off the agenda,” claims Dr Niblett and may be hastened by BREXIT brought about on the strength of a mainly English vote.
But no government will agree to an independence referendum on the same terms as before. “The decision to break up the Union will not be left only up to the Scots this time,” argues Wyld.
Who will be foreign secretary?
Apart from the issue of an in-out referendum on Europe, foreign policy has been largely absent from the election debate.
Foreign Office mandarins have been preparing foreign policy scenarios “on total guesswork” one senior official told Embassy, because it is unclear about the complexion of the next government and who will take over as foreign secretary.
For the Conservatives, some envoys predict the all-powerful Home Secretary Theresa May, but London Mayor Boris Johnson is also a popular choice. “He has had a lot of global exposure as Mayor,” said one diplomat.
However, combining a mayoral role with one of the Great Offices of State may be too much to handle, even for Johnson. One diplomat suggested the incumbent Philip Hammond could be a placeholder until after the EU referendum in 2017, leaving the way open for Johnson after he steps down as Mayor in 2016.
Predicting a Labour foreign secretary is more fraught with uncertainty since Douglas Alexander may lose his seat. Some pundits forecast a big role for veteran Alan Johnson or Yvette Cooper (although she didn’t enjoy her brief stint in the role). So it could be Mary Creagh from International Development, or Emma Reynolds, the shadow Europe minister, who could be up for promotion.
A third option put forward by some envoys to give the position to a Lib Dem coalition partner – Nick Clegg would be good in European negotiations suggested one diplomat (he has the advantage of speaking a few foreign languages) or Danny Alexander, but his seat in Scotland is also under threat so he may need to be given a peerage first.
Foreign policy challenges
Whoever takes over, conducting Britain’s foreign policy will be challenging. “UK foreign policy is on retreat,” said Niblett.
The debate over EU membership will “consume the country” and weaken its position in Europe; the British public have lost their appetite for intervention and heavy cuts on defence, foreign affairs and possibly intelligence are likely to be a constraint, added Niblett, which will worry its key partner, the US.
Added to that, minor partners in a coalition may wish to distinguish themselves from the leading party, most likely in foreign policy, so it could be harder for a government to take bold decisions or intervene in conflicts without substantial consultation.
“The UK will become more like Germany, more cautious,” predicts Niblett, adding that Britain is likely to have a “differentiated” foreign policy from the US (such as joining of the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank or its opposition to Israeli settlements).
Britain is likely to become more of a “niche player” in international affairs, using its networks and “hub-ness” to bring partners together on select global issues, said Niblett.
After a “neo Elizabethan” period of engaging with the emerging world, a new coalition foreign policy is likely to re-focus its attention on the US and the EU, although the relationships with its traditional partners have changed so the UK policy may appear “rootless”.