We’re counting down. Seven days to go. And then we’ll all be counting up. Counting up the seats. Adding different voting blocs together. And all to reach that magic number: 323.

Three hundred and twenty three is the number of votes needed to ensure a parliamentary majority. It is 50% plus one of the 650 members of the House of Commons minus the Sinn Fein abstainers and the neutral speaker.

But there is nothing magical about 323. It’s not mentioned in legislation or required by convention. In this race-to-the-bottom campaign, the number that matters is not 50%+1 but opposition +1. Let’s call this O+1.

The Queen will invite the person most likely to successfully carry a vote on their Queen’s Speech to form a government. Constitutionally, this needn’t even be the leader of one of the two main parties – but in reality it will be. Either Ed Miliband or David Cameron will be summoned to the palace.

Assuming that the summoned individual accepts the burden of government, they will then have to put together their Queen’s Speech and put it to the House of Commons. And here’s the little secret. Most of the time, not all 650 MPs turn up to vote. Some deliberately abstain whilst others are just lazy or otherwise engaged.

But surely on something as important as a Queen’s Speech they would turn up? Well yes and no. Turnout would certainly be higher than an average vote but there are plenty of reasons why some MPs, or groups of MPs, might not vote. For example, if it were a Labour Queen’s Speech, then Greens and Welsh and Scottish Nationalists would find it hard to walk into the same voting lobby as the Tories. The Lib Dems might be in complete disarray if their performance on polling day is substantially worse than they expect. These would all be plausible reasons for abstention.

Here’s an example:

Imagine Ed Miliband has a better night than many polls currently suggest – 295 Labour MPs are returned. Combined, the Tories, DUP, Lib Dems and Ukip have 290. This is Labour’s opposition. The SNP, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP and the Greens take the remaining 59 between them (don’t forget the speaker and Sinn Fein take 6 that we can ignore). Labour are nowhere near the 323 mark without the SNP but, potentially, don’t need to be. Their O+1 in this situation is 291 and, since 295 is greater than 291, there is no need to do a deal with the SNP. They can simply dare the left-leaning parties to vote with the Tories. On this basis, Ed Miliband could convincingly encourage the civil service to advise the Queen to summon him.

It could work for David Cameron too. Even if the Lib Dems boot out Clegg and call for Farron to take them to the left. Imagine a bad night for the smaller parties of the left. The SNP, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP, the Greens and the Lib Dems take only 65 seats between them. The DUP and Ukip take 10. Labour has a poor showing and comes out with just 249. Cameron falls short of 323, ending up on 320. But being 3 short doesn’t matter. Opposition is Labour’s 249, plus 65 from the minor left. So O+1 is 315. Cameron doesn’t have to entice the DUP into a coalition just to get over 323. Just dare them to vote with the Nationalists.

So can we please stop trying to count to 323? There’s really nothing magic about it.


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