Argh. I had a feeling something wasn’t quite right as I was typing it, and should have checked: it’s not actually true, as both the Liberals and I have lately suggested, that the party that wins the most seats in an election has the right under convention to be called upon first to form a government.
In fact, as a scholarly friend reminded me, it is the party in power at the time the election was called who has that right. The presumption is that it enjoys the confidence of the House until the House votes otherwise. Of course, in most cases the incumbent party, having suffered defeat at the polls and knowing defeat is certain in the House, does not attempt to hold onto power. But not always.
As I should have remembered, an important exception was the trigger event for the King-Byng affair. Defeated in the election of 1925 by Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives — with 101 seats to Meighen’s 116 — Mackenzie King nevertheless insisted on the right to form a government, hoping to persuade the 28 Progressive MPs to support him. A reluctant Lord Byng agreed, on condition that he would then call upon Meighen if King were ever defeated in the House.
When that moment arrived, however, King nevertheless demanded Byng dissolve the House and call new elections. Byng refused, citing their agreement, and asked Meighen to form a government instead. King seized on the supposed “interference” by a foreign potentate as an issue which he used to great effect in the next campaign.
A more recent almost-example: after the defeat of Paul Martin’s Liberals in the election of 2006, there was a brief flurry of speculation that Martin might try some sort of last-ditch deal to remain in government. He immediately ended it by announcing his resignation.
CODA: While incompetence explains my mistake, I suspect this was not an entirely honest error on the Liberals’ part. Rather, it was to put Harper on the spot, to foreclose any chance of him trying to carry on without a plurality of the seats on election day. Hence Ignatieff’s demand to know whether Harper agreed “with how I have described the workings of our democratic system.”
It’s a hard enough case to make, politically, at the best of times — “I may not have won the most seats, but I’m still Prime Minister, dammit!” — but given the stands Harper has taken, probably impossible. In other words, Ignatieff’s giving Harper a taste of his own populist, constitutional-niceties-be-damned medicine.