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BRIT Review

Does a hung parliament equal strong and stable government?

Friday, June 09, 2017


So this morning my mind goes back to the 2015 General Election campaign. That was the one where pollsters convinced us we were heading to a hung parliament again. The Conservatives even ran a poster campaign trying to frighten voters that if they supported Ed Miliband they would get the SNP as part of a deal. Well that time on election night, the exit poll provided a huge anti-climax to us political nerds; we had the nibbles and drinks prepared ready for a seat by seat race to the finish. As it was most of us put the stuff back in the cupboard and marched off to bed as the exit poll showed a conservative majority and you knew pundits would spend the next seven hours saying 'is it true' - only to be proved that it was.

Now, fast forward to 2017 and it's the exact opposite. Nobody was prepared for or expected a hung parliament. Yes, Theresa May repeatedly talked about the possibility of a 'coalition of chaos' but she was talking about Jeremy Corbyn + others, not herself. Unbelievably eight weeks ago, the polls were showing a 20 point lead for Mrs May and these never narrowed to reflect the actual result we have.

So, something I didn't think we'd be covering this morning is... what is a hung parliament?

The 2017 scenario

  • The Conservatives did not get a majority, meaning the numbers of seats they won are not more than the rest of the seats added together. This means they did not win.
  • But, the Conservative Party is the largest party winning 319 seats

What is a hung parliament?

  • A hung parliament happens when no party has 326 seats. This leaves a number of options for the larger parties to club together and make this number.
  • Sinn Fein opts not to take their seats in the UK parliament so the number required can sometimes be smaller.

Who's in charge if no-one won?

  • The previous government, currently run by Prime Minister Theresa May, remains in place while negotiations and discussions take place to form a coalition. This happened in 2010 where Gordon Brown stayed on as PM while the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had discussions. Once it was clear a joint-coalition would happen Brown resigned to make way for David Cameron.

What deals may be done?

  • Firstly, the deal can take several days depending on the arrangement, complexities and personalities involved
  • The current government may be able to do a deal with another smaller party. They will either join them in a formal coalition or 'prop them up' on a vote by vote basis. The most important aspect of this is confidence in whoever is supporting you to vote with you on the Queen's Speech, this sets forward the programme for governing and must pass through the Houses of Parliament. You would also need them to support you on major policy votes, otherwise it would be chaos 
  • If the current government can't find anyone to join them then it can fall and the largest opposition party may be invited to form a government
  • The other scenario is they may try to continue to govern as a minority government but again they would need to be confident about the Queen's Speech
  • At some point this 'deal' has to be put before the Queen, as they are officially forming her government.
  • If no deal can be reached there will be another General Election.

Apart from 2010, has this happened before?

In 1923, the Conservative Party lost their majority and were unable to form a coalition. The party, led by Stanley Baldwin, stumbled on for nine months before they lost a vote on the King's speech in January 1924. The Labour Party under Ramsay MacDonald then took office and governed as a minority administration until October of that year when that government too was defeated. It resulted in another election that was won by the Conservatives, with a much increased majority.

In February 1974, the incumbent Conservative administration lost its majority. Edward Heath, who was four seats behind Harold Wilson's Labour Party, remained prime minister for a few days while he tried to form a coalition. He failed, leaving Mr Wilson to form a government but without a majority. He, like the government in 1923, carried on for a short time (seven months), before another election took place, which resulted in a Labour majority of three. 

With such a small majority, Labour was able to govern but by 1977 it had to draw on the support of the Liberals and a pact was formed that lasted until May 1978.

Does it equal strong and stable government?

Generally no, however the fact everyone expected the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition to last about a fortnight (it lasted the full five years) is perhaps the glowing example. 

Historical cases of minority governments and knife-edge majorities show how destabilising it can be. It can be a distraction to governing in a practical sense, and the markets hate it, but what it does do is put immense scrutiny on the governing party. They can not just push through what they want with a massive majority. They have to reach out to people, they have to listen and perhaps compromise. Is this good for democracy; probably. Can you do every aspect of legislation and governing like this; no you can't.

Also, although a Prime Minister should never be untouchable, never underestimate the ability of the Westminster sharks to circle around a possible weak kill. This is also a major distraction and undermines collective responsibility and effective governance. Throw in the blow-by-blow analysis of 24-hr media (just waiting for you to fail) and it's not a stable picture.


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