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General Election: hung parliament widely expected

Tony Jones takes a look at how having the confidence of the Commons could be more important than having the largest number of MPs

By Tony Jones

Published 07/05/2015

In 2010 the Democratic Unionists secured eight of the 18 seats; Sinn Fein five; the SDLP three; with the Alliance Party and independent Sylvia Hermon both winning one
In 2010 the Democratic Unionists secured eight of the 18 seats; Sinn Fein five; the SDLP three; with the Alliance Party and independent Sylvia Hermon both winning one

The outcome of the General Election is widely predicted to be a hung parliament, with none of the major parties winning an overall majority.

But the important fact will not be who has the largest number of MPs, but who commands the confidence of the House of Commons.

David Cameron could stay on until the State Opening of Parliament on May 27, even if he is short of the 326 Conservative MPs needed to secure an overall majority in the Commons, former Cabinet Secretary Lord O'Donnell has suggested.

Lord O'Donnell, who oversaw coalition negotiations after the last election, drew up the Cabinet Manual in 2011 that states: "An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative."

Reports have suggested the monarch considered not giving the Queen's Speech - the outline of her Government's legislative programme for the year - if Mr Cameron put his programme forward before guaranteeing the support of enough MPs.

But it is understood the Queen, a constitutional monarch who remains politically neutral, will give the speech as she has done throughout her reign. To have declined to make the address could have been interpreted as a political move.

If Mr Cameron chooses to press ahead with a Queen's Speech, only to fall victim to a vote of no confidence, he will officially tender his resignation to the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

An alternative leader will have 14 days to show he or she can command the confidence of a majority of MPs.

It is the job of the political leaders to hold their meetings and try to form a coalition, leaving the Queen out of the process.

But the monarch's eyes and ears in Westminster will be her private secretary Sir Christopher Geidt.

DUP Leader Peter Robinson celebrate their General Election results with MPs Nigel Dodds and Gavin Robinson at the Kings Hall in Belfast.
DUP Leader Peter Robinson celebrate their General Election results with MPs Nigel Dodds and Gavin Robinson at the Kings Hall in Belfast.
East Antrim and South Antrim constituency counts at Valley Leisure Centre, Newtownabbey. Danny Kinnehan celebrates with Mike Nesbitt after taking the South Antrim seat from Willie McCrea Picture by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye.
A defeated Naomi Long at the East Belfast count
The DUP’s Gavin Robinson makes his speech after winning the East Belfast seat from Alliance’s Naomi Long (left)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 08: Prime Minister David Cameron opens the car door for his wife Samantha as they leave 10 Downing Street for Windsor Palace to meet with Queen Elizabeth I on May 8, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Ed Miliband speaks to the media and party supporters at George Street in London, as he resigns as leader of the Labour Party after a dramatic election night where his party was virtually wiped out in Scotland and David Cameron was on the way to a Commons majority. Yui Mok/PA Wire
Ukip leader and parliamentary candidate for Thanet South Nigel Farage (left)arrives at the Winter Gardens in Margate, Kent, for the delayed count in Thanet South. Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Alasdair McDonnell is to give up his Assembly seat after retaining his South Belfast Westminster position
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 08: Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha leave 10 Downing Street for Windsor Palace to meet with Queen Elizabeth I on May 8, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Opposition Labour party leader Ed Miliband (C) and his wife Justine Thornton arrive at Labour party headquarters in London on May 8, 2015, the day after a general election. Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives looked on course Friday for a surprise victory in Britain's general election which would redefine the country's future in Europe and herald more austerity cuts. AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLISJUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - MAY 08: SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon departs Edinburgh ahead of attending the 70th anniversary of VE Day commemorations in London on May 8, 2015 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND - MAY 08: (EDITORS NOTE: Retransmission with alternate crop.) Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg looks dejected as they leave his constituency declaration at the English Institute of Sport on May 8, 2015 in Sheffield, England. The United Kingdom has gone to the polls to vote for a new government in one of the most closely fought General Elections in recent history. (Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images)
SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND - MAY 08: Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and his wife Miriam Gonzalez Durantez look dejected as they leave his constituency declaration at the English Institute of Sport on May 8, 2015 in Sheffield, England. (Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images)
East Belfast candidate Naomi Long (Alliance) Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
DUP East Belfast candidate Gavin Robinson takes the seat from Naomi Long at The King's Hall in Belfast
DUP Jeffery Donaldson gives the thumbs up after winning the Lagan Valley Count at the Leisureplex, Lisburn.
East Antrim and South Antrim constituency counts at Valley Leisure Centre, Newtownabbey. Danny Kinnehan celebrates with wife Anna after taking the South Antrim seat from Willie McCrea Picture by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye.
East Antrim and South Antrim constituency counts at Valley Leisure Centre, Newtownabbey. Danny Kinnehan shakes the hand of Willie McCrea who he replaced as MP of South Antrim Picture by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye.
Willie McCrea from the DUP gives a very gracious speech after being replaced by Danny Kinnehan. Picture by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye.
Sinn Fein's Pat Doherty celebrates with his family and freinds after the announcment of his 16,807 votes victory in West Tyrone during this evenings results in the 2015 general Election results from the Omagh Leisure Centre. Photo Mark marlow/Pacemaker Press
North Belfast candidate?Gerry Kelly (Sinn Fein) Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
East Belfast ballot boxes arrive as the General Election count takes place at the King's Hall on May 7, 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams is interviewed by a broadcaster as the General Election count takes place at the King's Hall on May 7, 2015 in Belfast
East Antrim and South Antrim constituency counts at Valley Leisure Centre, Newtownabbey. Danny Kinnehan UUP Candidate Picture by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye.
Counting in the General Election gets underway at the Kings Hall in Belfast.
DUP's Nigel Dodds (North Belfast) with wife Diane at The King's Hall in Belfast
Banbridge Count Counting is under way at Banbridge, County Down, one of eight centres across Northern Ireland Photo Aidan O'Reilly/Pacemaker Press
East Antrim and South Antrim constituency counts at Valley Leisure Centre, Newtownabbey. Sammy Wilson DUP Candidate Picture by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye.
East Antrim and South Antrim constituency counts at Valley Leisure Centre, Newtownabbey. Danny Kinnehan UUP Candidate Picture by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye.
Sitting MP Mark Durkan, SDLP, at the count for the Foyle Constituency which is being held in Templemore Sports Complex, Derry-Londonderry Northern Ireland. Picture Martin McKeown. Inpresspics.com. 07.05.15
PACEMAKER BELFAST 07/05/2015 One of the first ballot boxes to arrived is opened in Templemore Sports Complex last night as counting got underway in the 2015 General Election.
PACEMAKER BELFAST 07/052015 Westminster Elections Banbridge Count Sinn Fein candidate Catherine Seeley pictured at the count in Banbridge, County Down, one of eight centres across Northern Ireland Photo Aidan O'Reilly/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 07/052015 Westminster Elections Banbridge Count Counting is under way at Banbridge, County Down, one of eight centres across Northern Ireland Photo Aidan O'Reilly/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 07/052015 Westminster Elections Banbridge Count Counting is under way at Banbridge, County Down, one of eight centres across Northern Ireland Photo Aidan O'Reilly/Pacemaker Press
A man arrives to cast his vote at Groomsport boat house on May 7, 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Pacemaker Press Belfast 07-05-2015: Voters at Glenavy Youth Project in Co Antrim , as Northern Ireland voters take to the polls on Thursday to select 18 MPs in the general election. A total of 138 candidates are standing across Northern Ireland and 1.2m people are eligible to vote. Picture Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
A woman walks past a sign in the window of the Newtownards Electoral office in Co Down Northern Ireland. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Demonstrators carry black flags during a protest at Parliament Square on election day on May 7, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
An election official stacks plastic boxes at a vote counting centre in Margate, southeast England, on May 7, 2015 in preparation for the arrival of the ballots during the UK general election. AFP/Getty Images
A polling station sign on a parking billboard at Cairnshill Primary school in Belfast as polls open across the UK for the General Election. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
SNP candidate for Gordon, Alex Salmond, arrives to cast his vote at Auchterellon School, Ellon, with local resident Nicki Falconer with her family Skye (left) and Keiran (right) as Britain goes to the ballot box today in the most uncertain General Election for decades, with no party on course to emerge a clear winner.
A ballot box for the constituency of East Belfast at the Newtownards Electoral office in Co Down Northern Ireland. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
UUP candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Tom Elliott arrives at the polling station in his home town of Ballinamallard, Co. Fermanagh.
A woman walks past post for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Alliance party as she walks in east Belfast on May 7, 2015, as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened Thursday in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Mid Suffolk Council handout photo of their Poll Clerk Simon Stoner by a caravan being used for a Polling Station in Kenton, near Debenham, as Britain goes to the ballot box today in the most uncertain General Election for decades, with no party on course to emerge a clear winner. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Thursday May 7, 2015. See PA story ELECTION Main. Photo credit should read: Mid Suffolk Council/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.
Women at the polling station at Bordesley Green allotments in Birmingham, as Britain goes to the ballot box today in the most uncertain General Election for decades, with no party on course to emerge a clear winner. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday May 7, 2015. See PA story ELECTION Main. Photo credit should read: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 7th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye Polling stations open in Northern Ireland for the 2015 Westminster Election. Voting at the Elim Church polling station in the Dundonald area of east Belfast.
Pacemaker Press Belfast 07-05-2015: Northern Ireland voters are going to the polls on Thursday to select 18 MPs in the general election. A total of 138 candidates are standing across Northern Ireland and 1.2m people are eligible to vote. SDLP Leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell pictured casting his vote with Olivia Nugent and daughter Aileen. Picture By: Arthur Allison.
Pacemaker Press Belfast 07-05-2015: Northern Ireland voters are going to the polls on Thursday to select 18 MPs in the general election. A total of 138 candidates are standing across Northern Ireland and 1.2m people are eligible to vote. Sinn Fein's Paul Maskey pictured after casting his vote. Picture By: Arthur Allison.
First Minister Peter Robinson with DUP candidate Gavin Robinson for East Belfast, cast their vote in the at Elim Church in Dundonald.
A comical photo from Cairnshill Primary in Belfast where a polling station sign was stuck on top of a car parking sign. Pic: Julie McGovern-Peoples
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness leaves the polling station after casting his vote in Derry in the General Election. Picture Martin McKeown. Inpresspics.com. 07.05.15
Goods are removed from 10 Downing Street, London, as Britain goes to the ballot box today in the most uncertain General Election for decades, with no party on course to emerge a clear winner. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday May 7, 2015. See PA story ELECTION Main. Photo credit should read: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire
Prime Minister David Cameron and wife Samantha leave after casting their votes at Spelsbury Memorial Hall, Witney, as Britain goes to the ballot box today in the most uncertain General Election for decades, with no party on course to emerge a clear winner. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday May 7, 2015. See PA story ELECTION Main. Photo credit should read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Voters visit a polling station at Hanover Primary School, Islington, London, as Britain goes to the ballot box today in the most uncertain General Election for decades, with no party on course to emerge a clear winner. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday May 7, 2015. See PA story ELECTION Main. Photo credit should read: Rick Findler/PA Wire
Conservative candidate for Wirral West Esther McVey on the streets of West Kirkby on General Election Day. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday May 7, 2015. See PA story ELECTION Main. Photo credit should read: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Police officers stand outside a Polling station at Westminster Central Hall, London, as Britain goes to the ballot box today in the most uncertain General Election for decades, with no party on course to emerge a clear winner. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday May 7, 2015. See PA story ELECTION Main. Photo credit should read: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire
Green Party leader Natalie Bennett (second right) arrives to cast her vote at Ossulston Tenants' Hall, London, as Britain goes to the ballot box today in the most uncertain General Election for decades, with no party on course to emerge a clear winner. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday May 7, 2015. See PA story ELECTION Main. Photo credit should read: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and his wife Justine arrive to cast their votes at Sutton village hall in Doncaster, as Britain goes to the ballot box today in the most uncertain General Election for decades, with no party on course to emerge a clear winner. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday May 7, 2015. See PA story ELECTION Main. Photo credit should read: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
Protestors demonstrate as British Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party David Cameron (R) leaves with his wife Samantha after voting at a polling station in Spelsbury on May 7, 2015 as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / LEON NEALLEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
Members of the public arrive at a polling station set up in Mattingley church hall in southern England, on May 7, 2015, as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / ADRIAN DENNISADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images
Scotland's First Minister and Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon (L) waves as she and her husband Peter Murrell cast their votes at the Broomhoouse Community Hall in Glasgow, Scotland, on May 7, 2015, as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened Thursday in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / ANDY BUCHANANAndy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images
A member of the public looks at a dog tied to railings after voting at a polling station in Glasgow, Scotland, on May 7, 2015, as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened Thursday in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / IAN MACNICOLIan MacNicol/AFP/Getty Images
A dog is tied to railings at a polling station in Glasgow, Scotland, on May 7, 2015, as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened Thursday in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / IAN MACNICOLIan MacNicol/AFP/Getty Images
Members of the public arrive to vote at a polling station in Glasgow, Scotland, on May 7, 2015, as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened Thursday in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / IAN MACNICOLIan MacNicol/AFP/Getty Images
A woman attaches a sign directing voters to the polling station in the village of Sutton, near Doncaster, in northern England on May 7, 2015, as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFFOLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images

Only when the leaders are in agreement will the Queen return from Windsor Castle to the palace and invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House to serve as prime minister and form a government.

Recent polling suggests Mr Cameron may well have the largest team of MPs at Westminster, but that Labour leader Ed Miliband may be better placed to survive a confidence motion on the back of votes from SNP MPs with whom he refuses to enter coalition.

Dr Matt Cole, a constitutional history expert from the University of Birmingham, has said: "We are faced with the prospect that the incumbent prime minister has as large a share of the vote as last time and quite close to the same number of MPs, and the leader of the opposition has quite clearly failed to match that, and yet the leader of the opposition becomes prime minister, even without incorporating another party in a coalition."

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