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.

Polling-Station-Secretlondon123    (Image from SecretLondon123)

When Theresa May became Prime Minister in July 2016, she was the twelfth leader in the last 100 years who got to Downing Street through a party vote rather than a popular one. However, because of the divided parties and difficult situations that they often inherit, these ‘takeover’ Prime Ministers have less time in power and are generally rated as worse performing than those who win general elections -think Gordon Brown, James Callaghan and John Major. Their average time in power is 3.6 years compared with 6.6 for those elected by the people to office.

Is there a way out of this ‘takeover trap’? The normal assumption is that takeovers need an election win for their own security and so they don’t feel, as John Major put it, they are ‘living in sin with the electorate’. Despite her repeated denials, May has decided to escape her takeover fate and called an election for June 8th 2017. This is May’s (not so big) gamble, having gained Labour’s agreement to a vote on a motion for an early election under the (not so) Fixed Term Parliament Act-which has proved even less of barrier  to a snap election than many hoped.

 

Takeover Prime Ministers: Elections, Longevity and Ranking 1916-2016[1]

Prime Minister Won or Lost next GE (and size of victory/loss) Time in power How left office Ranking (out of 20 using Theakston and Gill)
Gordon Brown 2007 Lost 2010 (narrow loss?) 3 years Defeated n/a (PM after survey)
John Major Won 1992 (narrow win) 7 years Defeated 15
James Callaghan 1976 Lost 1979 (medium loss) 3 years Defeated 12
Alec Douglas-Home 1963 Lost 1964 (narrow loss) 1 year Defeated 19
Harold Macmillan 1957 Won 1959 (increased majority) 6 years Resigned (health/lost confidence of party) 5
Anthony Eden 1955 Won 1955 (increased majority) 2 years Resigned (health/lost confidence of party) 20
Winston Churchill

1940

Lost 1945

(landslide)

5 years Defeated 2
Neville Chamberlain 1937 Never fought an election 3 years Resigned (lost confidence of party) 17
Stanley Baldwin Won 1935 (lesser majority for coalition) 2 years

 

Resigned (health) 8
Stanley Baldwin Lost   1923 (hung) 1 year (8 months)

 

Defeated

 

8
Andrew Bonar Law Never fought an election 1 year (7 months) Resigned (health) 16
David Lloyd George Won 1918 6 years Resigned (ejected by coalition) 3

 

Looking at the past, such an election gamble didn’t always pay off. In the past century 5 takeovers have won and 5 lost their subsequent election (two never fought them). All but one of the takeover winners were more than fifty years ago. Since 1959 only one takeover, John Major, has won a General Election, and his victory in 1992 did not lead to political success. If May increases her majority she’ll be the first takeover to do since Macmillan in 1959. Interestingly, no takeover has won more than one General Election, compared with 2 elected leaders who won 3 (Blair and Thatcher) and one who won four (Wilson). Perhaps even more notable is the fact that every takeover who won an election resigned before the next due election: Baldwin and Eden after 2 years, Chamberlain after 3 and Macmillan after 3 years and 3 months. By this calculation May has until June 2020.

In calling an election after only 9 months in power May has clearly bucked the historical trend, as most takeovers waited a while, and often waited too long (though Eden did it after just 9 days). Macmillan took four years from 1955 until 1959. All the other modern takeovers from Home to Callaghan, Major and Brown sought to hang on to the end of their term limit and to, as Churchill put it, ‘stay in the pub until closing time’. They all did this in the hope that their polling would improve. Poor polling is not a worry for May, though rumours have swirled that the CPS expenses investigation and possibility of Corbyn stepping down after the local elections did play a role.

The bigger question is whether the General Election will solve May’s problems. It appears likely an election will ‘crush Labour and make Brexit a little easier’ though there are, as ever, other possibilities and John Curtice has pointed out that a combination of SNP dominance, Northern Ireland divergence and safe Labours seats may stop a landslide. Unlike John Major, she will probably have a larger majority according to the latest polling.

Yet many other problems will still loom large on 9th June and the new May administration will inherit several rolling constitutional crises. Nicola Sturgeon could be gifted a stronger case for IndyRef 2 and make good her prediction that a 2017 General Election is a ‘huge miscalculation’.  The too long neglected divisions and stalemate in Northern Ireland looks set to worsen. The poll will also do nothing to solve the huge complexities of Brexit and, for the secretive May, any election campaign could drag the spotlight onto her Brexit plans, forcing her to reveal her hidden hand. So an election victory will free May from the short, unhappy fate of other takeovers but won’t necessarily secure a long or more stable premiership. What could be historic could also prove pyrrhic.

The full paper Ending in Failure? The Performance of ‘Takeover’ Prime Ministers 1916-2016 can be downloaded here

[1] Table excludes self-takeover by Ramsay MacDonald in 1931.