So Theresa May’s gamble failed and we now have a hung Parliament. This means that, although they are the largest party, the Conservatives do not have a majority of MPs to pass laws. As the House of Commons Library explains:

General elections are held to return MPs to the House of Commons. Most commonly, one party has a majority of seats, and this party then forms a government. If a general election produces results in which no party has a majority of Members this is known as a ‘hung Parliament’.

Here’s the balance of seats (number of MPs). No party has the magic 326 (50% plus one but actually 322) to have a majority to pass a bill [1]

.

Party Seats
Conservative 317
Labour 262
Scottish National Party 35
Liberal Democrat 12
Democratic Unionist Party 10
Sinn Fein 7
Plaid Cymru 4
Green Party 1
Independent 1
Speaker 1
Total number of seats 650
Working Government Majority  0

This great graphic from the Institute for Government shows how no one quite gets over the finishing line of 322 seats:

hoc

 

So What Now?

According to the Cabinet Manual that tells us the rules of the political game in the UK, the Conservatives get first chance to try and form a government that can govern ‘command the confidence of the House of Commons’(i.e. put together a group who can pass laws):

Where an election does not result in an overall majority for a single party, the incumbent government remains in office unless and until the Prime Minister tenders his or her resignation and the Government’s resignation to the Sovereign. An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.

They now have a number of options. The Conservatives can (i) govern as a minority government, working to pass legislation each time and ‘to strike issue-by-issue deals to pass its business’ (ii) create an informal alliance with another party (iii) put together a formal coalition with agreed terms.

Their current choice is to go for (ii) and ask for the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, a small Northern Irish party (see how many UK newspaper have articles entitled ‘who are the DUP’). This will probably done by a so-called ‘supply and confidence’ arrangement (see this explainer and analysis here). This means the DUP will support important bills in exchange for certain concessions (probably about money). At the time of writing it seems the negotiations are a little trickier than many thought.

How Long Will It Last?

If you think such an arrangement sounds a little temporary then you are right. Below is table of how such minority governments and informal arrangements have lasted since 1910.

 

Government Lasted (approx)
Minority Liberal Government (1910-1915) 5 years (Dec 1910-1915).
Minority Labour Government (1924) 9 months (Jan-October 1924)
Minority Labour Government (1929-1931) 2 years (June 1929-August 1931)
Minority Labour Government (1974) 8 months (Feb-October 1974)
1977 Lib Lab pact (1977-1978) 14 months (March 1977-July 1978)
Minority Conservative Government (1997) 4 months (Feb-May 1997)
Minority Conservative Government (2017) ?

The Liberal minority from 1910-1915 is probably the exception, when the Liberals governed with the support of Labour MPs and others. The government achieved a great deal but was beset by a crisis in Ireland and constitutional deadlock with the House of Lords and then interrupted by the First World War in August 1914. All the others have lasted months rather than years. Minority and informal pact governments have often been temporary and driven by crisis.

In each case, whether formally in the case of the 1977 Lib Lab pact or informally, the larger party has relied on the votes of smaller parties to pass bills. The difficulty, as this report puts it, is that it ‘depends upon shared interests and the ability of the leaderships of both parties to work together’. The question is what the shared interests of the DUP and Conservatives are (especially around Brexit) and whether Theresa May has the skills to hold together an informal alliance.

The wider politics of the agreement could raise all sorts of problems and have ‘worrying consequences’ . It would make the  peace process in Northern Ireland much harder (at a delicate stage since elections this year and the suspension of the Assembly) and also raises political tensions, with unhappiness in the Conservative party and among the public at DUP policies on LGBT rights, abortion and association with Northern Ireland’s violent past.

How About a Coalition?

Would a more concrete arrangement not be better? Looking at the more formal coalitions since 1915, it seems they do last much longer (though again a number of these were created in crisis, either wartime or economic).

 

Government Lasted
Wartime coalition and the “coupon” election (1915-1922)

 

7 years
The National Government (1931-1940?) 9 years
Wartime coalition (1940-45) 5 years
Conservative Liberal Democrat Coalition Government (2010-2015) 5 years

 

A formal deal would, so to speak, be stronger and more stable. As the great @Parlyapp put it ‘Coalition government would have been preferable for the Tories as from a Commons point of view it is a majority government.’ It also gives a government greater control of committees and rules in Parliament.

However, it seems the DUP would be reluctant to do it as smaller parties tend to suffer in more formal agreements and the DUP saw how the Liberal Democrats suffered in coalition with the Conservatives. The black widow effect means the weaker gets eaten. Some Conservative MPs may also shy from being seen as too close to the DUP on too many issues.

And Now?

What happens next is uncertain. If May cobbles together an arrangement (and it is still if) it will probably be short-lived and tricky. Amid all the discussion of the General Election two things are certain with the new hung parliament: Northern Ireland is back at the heart of UK politics and Brexit just got a lot harder.

Further Reading

House of Commons Library Hung Parliaments in the 20th Century

 

[1] It isn’t actually 326 owing to the non-voting Speaker, deputies and 7 Sinn Fein MPs who don’t attend-it’s actually 322.