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Can a minority Conservative government survive? Let’s look at the maths

PA/Andrew Matthews

Can a minority Conservative government survive? Let’s look at the maths

Following the unexpected failure of the Conservatives to secure a majority in Theresa May’s snap general election, the UK has its second hung parliament in seven years. With 318 seats, the Conservatives fell eight seats short of a majority, though in reality they are four short, given the abstentionist policy of Sinn Féin, which won seven seats. Labour, with 262 seats, fell short by 60. Attention naturally focused first on whether the Conservatives could form a government.

The available options were a formal coalition with another party or a Conservative minority government. The prospects of a Conservative-led coalition were limited. After the damage inflicted on the Liberal Democrats by their coalition deal with the Conservatives in 2010-15, the centrist party ruled out any reprise. There was also no chance of a Conservative deal with the Scottish National Party (SNP), which won 35 seats but which is resolutely opposed to the Tories on both constitutional and economic questions. It appears that no one has even contemplated a grand coalition between Labour and the Conservatives, an arrangement that works in Germany but which is alien to the UK other than in wartime.

That left one coalition option for the Conservatives – involving Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which won ten seats. While that would have locked in the DUP to unpopular decisions, it appears to have been opposed by many Conservatives. It would have been a particularly difficult pill to swallow for those critical of the DUP’s socially conservative stance on same-sex marriage and abortion.

Theresa May, the prime minister, has therefore sought to form a minority government, relying on support from the DUP. If it entails a “supply-and-confidence” agreement, then the DUP would support the government in confidence votes, including the Queen’s speech (which sets out the government’s legislative programme), and on financial votes, particularly the budget. All other votes would be decided on a case-by-case basis. In return, the DUP would hope to extract some policy concessions, probably on public spending and welfare.

Is a minority government unstable?

The predominant view seems to be that minority governments are alien to Britain’s majoritarian political culture and liable to be unstable. Indeed, an early general election to break the deadlock has already been mooted. However, minority governments are common in Europe. There is currently one in Denmark, and a minority coalition in Sweden, for instance.

The stability of minority governments can be affected by a number of variables. The first is whether the government finds itself ideologically positioned in between parties to its left and right, and thereby able to play them off against each other. This “median legislator theorem” predicts that such governments can be stable.

If the DUP is regarded as being to the right of the Conservatives while all other parties are to the left, then the Conservatives do indeed control the median legislator (the 322nd MP in a left-right ranking of all 643 non-abstentionist MPs). That implies they have great bargaining power.

However, while that applies on social issues, where the DUP are to the right, it is probably not the case with economic policy and Brexit. Here, the DUP holds more statist and soft-Brexit positions. That would make the Conservatives the most right-wing party and not in control of the median legislator. It’s one reason why the government might end up watering down Brexit.

DUP leader Arlene Foster on election night. PA

A second factor affecting the stability of a minority government is its degree of internal unity. If even a few Conservative MPs are willing to rebel on certain issues, the government could be defeated. A minority administration requires a very effective whipping operation in parliament and willingness by the government to listen to its MPs – and those of other parties.

The third factor is the confidence and supply agreement, which will allow the government to function in a basic way, passing its budget and ensuring its own survival. But votes on all other matters would not be covered, and so the government would need to build new majorities on a case-by-case basis. Again, parliamentary management will be crucial because parliament becomes stronger in relation to the executive.

Any other options?

Some have suggested the possibility of a minority Labour government, backed by the SNP and the Liberal Democrats. However, it would still need the support of the DUP – which might well be possible on economic matters, although the DUP wants nothing to do with Jeremy Corbyn.

One potential problem with a Labour-led minority government follows from the new procedures on “English votes for English laws”. On bills or sections of bills relating solely to England (or England and Wales), MPs for English (or English and Welsh) constituencies possess a veto as they must pass consent motions before they are voted on by all UK MPs. In the election, the Conservatives won 297 of the 533 English constituencies, a majority of 61, and in England and Wales, they won 305 out of 573 seats, a majority of 37. In the event of a minority Labour administration at Westminster, these Conservative MPs would be able to block a Labour government’s English (and English and Welsh) bills, including its plan to abolish tuition fees.

Minority government will be a challenge in a majoritarian setting and another election cannot be ruled out. However, we shouldn’t automatically assume that it will fail, not least because the Conservatives will not want an early election unless they are confident of winning.

The 2010-15 coalition survived predictions it would not last because the participants learnt how to make it work. With compromise, intelligent party management, and possibly under a new prime minister, the same could be true of this experiment in minority government.