The media has talked itself into believing there will be a hung Parliament after the coming General Election. Now Whitehall is following suit.
Senior civil servants are currently codifying the Queen’s powers so that it is clear what she can, and cannot, do in the event of Parliament being hung.
Although we live in a constitutional monarchy, in theory the Queen retains substantial powers, including the power to appoint the Prime Minister and to dissolve Parliament.
Normally, the Prime Minister is the leader of a party with a majority in the House of Commons and dissolution takes place at his request. A hung Parliament, however, means that there is some uncertainty about who has the greatest claim to be Prime Minister.
Civil servants are worried that the Queen’s involvement at this time would be perceived to be politically motivated.
In reality, the Queen would only act according to convention, but the perception that the Crown is involved in politics could be damaging to the institution.
In the UK, the Prime Minister is not elected by the House of Commons (unlike the situation in the Republic, where the Taoiseach is elected by the Dail).
Instead, the British Prime Minister is appointed by the Queen on the assumption that he —and it has only once been a she — can enjoy the confidence of the House.
If the Prime Minister has a majority, this is not a problem. He remains Prime Minister until such times as he loses a vote of confidence in the House, as happened to James Callaghan in 1979. At that point the Government must resign and a General Election is usually called at once.
What happens if there is a hung Parliament? It is not quite correct to say that the Queen would be at liberty to appoint the Prime Minister.
If the two largest parties are of a similar size, the existing Prime Minister (in this case Gordon Brown) would be entitled to stay in office until the House of Commons meets, when he could be forced out in a vote of confidence. He may, however, see the writing on the wall, and resign his post.
In either of these cases, the Queen would likely approach the Leader of the Opposition (David Cameron). She could immediately appoint him Prime Minister, or ask him to consult and see if he could command support in the Commons, either by entering into a formal coalition or by staving off a confidence motion.
The real problem arises if the new Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence, too. What does the Queen do then? Go back to Brown? Or what happens if Brown, instead of resigning in the first place, wants another General Election?
Given that one of the responsibilities of the Crown is to ensure that there is always a Government in place, and that the country does not face endless general elections, this would be a tricky situation for the Queen.
There are other ways in which the Crown might become embroiled in a potentially damaging situation. The civil servants who have been preparing the document outlining the Queen’s powers have been looking to Canada, where the Queen is also head of state.
Canada has had considerable experience of minority governments in recent years.
In the 2008 election, the minority Conservative government was returned with slightly more seats than they won in the previous election in 2006, giving Prime Minister Stephen Harper the right to try to continue in office. He did so.
Several weeks later, however, the three main opposition parties clubbed together and threatened to force Harper out and form a three-party coalition — in spite of the fact that they had previously been at logger-heads.
Faced with this prospect, the Prime Minister asked the Governor General to prorogue (temporarily suspend) Parliament for six weeks. During this time the coalition fell apart and Harper was able to stay.
There are those who fear that a similar pattern of events in Britain could, however unintentionally, bring the Crown into a dangerous political debate. What if Brown or Cameron kept trying to prorogue Parliament to avoid a vote of confidence? What if the Prime Minister demanded a second General Election immediately?
If such a situation arose, the Canadian example may in fact provide a way forward for Britain. The reality is that, if the Queen follows the advice of the Prime Minister of the day, she is unlikely to go wrong.
In all likelihood, British politicians will have a good sense of what is required of them. If Gordon Brown comes back with fewer seats than Mr Cameron at the election, he will recognise the way the wind has blown and resign.
If Mr Cameron does not win enough seats to form a majority Government, he will do his best not to antagonise the smaller parties.
Meanwhile, the smaller parties themselves — including the DUP — will recognise that the people will be unforgiving of any party which plays silly games, so they will likely give the new Government some time to do its thing.
Ultimately, it will be for politicians to work out what will happen in a hung Parliament and they will not want to have to face losing their seats very soon after defending them.
The Queen and her advisers need not worry. The system can cope with a hung Parliament.
But there probably won’t even be one.
David C Shiels is secretary of the Cambridge Group for Irish Studies