The prospect of government by short-term deals and extortion is so depressing that you can see why Ed Miliband has said he won’t go in for that kind of thing, and why David Cameron and Nick Clegg have finally started laying down some red lines. But there’s no getting away from the electoral mathematics, as Gladstone and Salisbury learnt 130 years ago. Before the 1885 election, the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell worked out that he could hold the balance of power.
If this should happen at the next election, he can enable the Conservatives to turn out the present Liberal Government, and then enable the Liberals to turn out the succeeding Conservative Government, and so on ad infinitum. Parliamentary government will have become an impossibility until Mr. Parnell has been bought off, and the price at which he can be bought off will be Home-rule. England will feel herself checkmated, and the price will be paid.
In the end Parnell’s plan didn’t work out quite so neatly, but some of this came true: having first supported the Conservatives, he switched to the Liberals and another election was held within a year. Before that first election, the Liberal Lord Hartington warned Parnell that England wouldn’t be held to ransom.
“Mr. Parnell's action may result in a series of short Governments; it may result in some uncertainty and change of policy; it may result in the postponement of necessary and wished-for reform. But the time will come, after these inconveniences have been endured for a time, the time will inevitably come when, in consequence of such actions of the Irish Party, any serious political differences which may exist among the parties in this country will be comparatively obliterated, and means will be found by which a practically united Parliamentary representation – a practically united country – will impose a firm and decided veto on proposals which are in their opinion so fatal and so mischievous to the integrity of the empire and the prosperity of its people.”
Not comforted by assurances like this, a letter to the editor supported a plan to simply hand over land to Irish tenant farmers to create a whole new demographic in Ireland. To allay the immediate threat, it proposed a more cunning plan to neutralise the nationalists: any motion that was voted through because of the votes of nationalists should be put to a second vote.
I am not so sanguine as to suppose that amongst a people who have inherited traditional dislike to England, inflamed to hatred by the class of professional politicians, feelings of attachment can speedily arise... The more formidable mischief of leaving to Mr. Parnell the casting vote in the decisions of Parliament can be effectually met…in one way only. An honourable understanding between the leaders, and one simple change in the procedure of the House of Commons, will secure the object. The change would be to enable a sufficient number, say a hundred, Members to demand a second division, the result of the second division being decisive. The understanding would be that the votes of the enemies of the Empire should not be allowed to influence the decisions of Parliament – that whenever a majority had been obtained by means of their votes, the party whose majority had been obtained through them should leave the House and take no part in the second division. To this you must come if the traditional fame of the British Parliament is not to suffer indelible disgrace. To a great effort to remove the danger and discredit of a disunited Empire you are called, if you are not prepared for the utter ruin of disruption.
Another letter writer was optimistic, arguing that Parnell had underestimated the English and offering a variant of the second vote plan.
The Englishman will naturally suppose that 590 Members of Parliament ought not to allow themselves to be overridden by 80 Members…A body of Members, equal in number to Mr. Parnell's followers, should be told-off from the two English parties in proportion to the numerical strength of each, to neutralise the Irish vote, on whichever side given, by voting the other way. But suppose all these expedients to fail, and that the Parliament of the day proved too factions or too unmanageable to emancipate itself from Mr. Parnell, yet above the Parliament will always stand the nation. Let any Ministry, whether Liberal or Conservative, enjoying a fair amount of public confidence, be outvoted, under circumstances likely to endanger Parliamentary government, by a coalition between the legitimate Opposition and Mr. Parnell, and upon a dissolution the Opposition would be routed at the polls everywhere throughout Great Britain. As the result of an election giving an overwhelming majority to the Ministry, Mr. Parnell's party would be reduced to impotence for years.
Some Conservatives are hoping that Labour would make a similar calculation in the event that the Tories find themselves in a position to put forward a Queen’s Speech; joining forces with the SNP to reject it might not be a great move for long-term popularity in England.