The odds are against the Grits

In this election, there are a number of possible scenarios, none of which help the Liberals much

You say you’re bored by this campaign? Nothing seems to happen, nothing much will change? Be not downhearted. Dull the election may be, but the aftermath promises to be fascinating.

It’s true the polls have barely budged—not during this campaign, not for much of the last five years. On current form, we might well elect a Parliament that looked a whole lot like the last one. But just because we get the same result doesn’t mean we get the same result. Unless, in an ironic twist, we do.

To take an obvious example: throughout the campaign, the Conservatives have told voters that if their party does not win a majority, the result would be certain disast—no, a coalit—er, a Liberal minority government, propped up by the NDP and the Bloc Québécois. A Tory minority, that is, would swiftly be defeated in the House, with the Governor General then calling upon Michael Ignatieff to form a government—a possibility Ignatieff himself has lately acknowledged.

But is this necessarily true? Actually, it depends. As the accompanying chart shows, there are a number of possible scenarios.

Coyne chart

*Seat totals assume NDP wins 34 seats and Bloc 46

[Correction: Scenario 2 should read: Conservatives win more seats than in last election.]

Scenario 1: Conservative majority. Obviously if the Conservatives get 50 per cent plus one of the seats, or 155, that settles that. Harper’s premiership would be confirmed, and Ignatieff’s leadership would be over.

Scenario 2: Stronger Conservative minority. Should the Tories fall short of a majority, but win more seats than the 143 they took in the last election, they are probably safe: more so if the Liberals are also reduced in number. Given the backlash that greeted the 2008 attempt, it’s hard to believe they would find better favour on a worse showing.

I say, probably. But the Conservatives have also told us that if they do form a government, one of the first things they’ll do is cancel the per-vote party subsidy, on which the Liberals are particularly dependent. So Ignatieff would have a strong incentive to try to take them down even then. The stakes, as they say, are too high. [Correction: Harper has said he would only do this in the event of a majority. My mistake.]

Scenario 3: Weaker Conservative minority. A reduction in Conservative numbers would give the Liberals more cover: not only had the Tories been rebuked by Parliament, they could claim, but also by the public.

It would still be a tough call. At 90 to 100 seats, the Liberals would not have enough seats for a majority, even in combination with the NDP. Indeed, the two parties would probably not have enough even to outvote the Tories. To govern, they would need the support of the Bloc.

I think the Grits might still risk it, but I’d say the chances are 50-50. Ignatieff would probably have to strike some sort of support agreement with the other two leaders to convince the Governor General his government would last. That wouldn’t mean a coalition, a possibility he has famously ruled out. But it would seem hard to square with his pledge not to enter into any “formal arrangement” with the Bloc.

Scenario 4: Liberals and NDP with more seats combined than the Conservatives. They’d still need the support of the Bloc, but the Liberals could find it easier screwing up their nerve were they to come in over the 100-seat mark. Not only would they have more seats, in combination with the NDP, than the Tories, they’d also have more than the 99 seats Harper had when he was plotting to bring down the Martin government in 2004. They’d almost certainly go for it.

But would they get the chance? The Tories would still need the support of only one party to hold on to power, and the possibility of a deal with the “socialists” or “separatists” cannot be ruled out. Harper, after all, would have his own incentive to deal. Once power had slipped his grasp, he would soon find his leadership under challenge.

Scenario 5 & 6: Liberals and Conservatives roughly tied. The next threshold occurs where both major parties are in the range of 110 to 120 seats. Whether the Conservatives or Liberals had more seats would not much matter: in either event, the Liberals would most probably form a government. But it would remain a tenuous arrangement, dependent on both the NDP and the Bloc for its survival. Parliament would be a tinderbox.

And even then—even if Harper wins fewer seats—there’s always Mackenzie King’s example. Elected in 1925 with 15 fewer seats than the Tories, he nevertheless insisted on his right to form a government, as the incumbent prime minister. It’s not actually cut and dried that the party with the most seats gets first crack.

Scenario 7 & 8: Strong Liberal minority. With more than 120 seats or so, the Grits would be free to govern as the Tories have, finding support for each bill from one party or another. Alas, the likelihood of them winning this many seats is slim. Ditto for…

Scenario 9: Liberal majority. It’s just not going to happen.

And this is the point: the scenarios in which the Liberals are most likely to try to take power are the ones that are least likely to arise. Though it’s doubtful the Tories could win enough seats for a majority, it’s equally doubtful they’ll lose many seats.

I’ve pencilled in some subjective estimates of the probabilities, based on the latest poll numbers. Summing across different scenarios, I’d guess the odds of a Conservative majority at 25 per cent; of a Conservative minority, 65 per cent. And the odds of a Tory minority, once elected, being replaced by the Liberals? Less than one in two.

Or, if you prefer, there’s an almost one in two chance of all hell breaking loose.

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