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Hung Parliament Insights

On 8th May we wake up to another hung parliament. What does this mean for the government and what happens next?

Every major political forecast now points to a second hung parliament after the election with no single party commanding an overall majority in the House of Commons and with the two main parties very close in total seats won. PHA Media’s Head of Political Strategy, Tim Snowball explains what would happen next:

Who’s in charge?

Whatever the outcome, as the incumbent Prime Minister, David Cameron can remain in office unless he is no longer confident that he commands a majority in the House of Commons.

While negotiations take place the current coalition Ministers would remain in government, as they have been throughout the General Election. But, as during the campaign, they are not permitted to take any actions that could be postponed, such as making appointments, awarding contracts, or launching new policy initiatives.

If the Conservatives lose, when would Cameron resign?

By convention Cameron is expected to resign when it is clear that he can no longer command a majority in the Commons. At this point he is required to visit the Queen to advise her on who she should call upon to form the next government.

As it seems unlikely that the Conservatives will win a majority in their own right, Cameron would need to secure a second coalition or a confidence and supply agreement to remain confident of winning a Queen’s speech vote. If he can, Cameron could in theory remain Prime Minster, even if Labour win more seats.

In February 1974 for example, Ted Heath won fewer seats than Harold Wilson, but remained in Number 10 until his efforts to secure a deal with the Liberals and Ulster Unionists failed.

If Cameron can’t secure a deal, the timing of his trip to the Palace is not however dependent on the Labour Party having secured an alternative coalition or being otherwise confident of a majority. In 2010 Brown resigned when he no longer believed a Labour-Lib Dem deal to be viable, even though the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were yet to complete their negotiations.

Cameron may do similarly if he cannot see any prospect of a Conservative led government remaining in power, especially if he felt it to be in his party’s interest (i.e. the timing lessened the chance of a stable alternative government being formed).

In reality, if there is a majority of anti-Tory parties elected (i.e. Labour + SNP + Green + Plaid) Cameron will know from 8 May that his time is up, regardless of formal deals against him.

Who negotiates with who?

There is no constitutional reason to stop any party talking to any other about forming the next government.

As outlined, it is also by no means automatic that the leader of the largest party will become Prime Minister. Coalition negotiation is fundamentally a numbers game. Who can secure a deal that gives them a majority in the House of Commons first.

Unless he is defeated decisively, Cameron is likely to seek to do a deal (whether full coalition or confidence and supply) that will allow him to remain in power. This deal might include the Liberal Democrats for a second time, or possibly UKIP or the DUP.

Miliband is also likely to enter discussions with the Liberal Democrats, but he has the option of support from the SNP, or a combination of smaller parties on the left.

The process is complicated slightly by the position of the Liberal Democrats. In 2010 Nick Clegg established his own principle for beginning negotiations with the party with the strongest mandate from the electorate (most seats and most votes) which is expected to guide the Liberal Democrats approach negotiations this time too. In practice, assuming they have enough seats and especially if the result is unclear, it is likely that the Lib Dems will end up negotiating on two fronts, as they did in 2010.

During the General Election campaign Nicola Sturgeon has been bullish about the prospect of securing Miliband’s entrance to Number 10, whatever the result. Given the projected SNP landslide in Scotland, this puts Labour in a strong position if they are willing to do a deal with their Scottish rivals. Given Sturgeon’s very public commitment to support Labour, Miliband might call her bluff and go it alone on the assumption that the SNP would have to support Labour at key votes, this would however be a very risky strategy.

What about Minority Government?

Minority government is an option for either the Labour or Conservative parties or a coalition that doesn’t quite reach the working majority of 323 seats. However any such government would need to be sure that it could win its Queen’s Speech and other key votes (including votes of confidence) through parliament.

What about “Confidence and Supply” agreements?

A confidence and supply agreement would allow one of the Conservatives or Labour to govern alone as a minority administration.

In such a deal a smaller party agrees to provide the governing party with “confidence” that it would back it in a vote of no confidence, and to “supply” votes to win key Queen Speech and budget votes. All other issues are decided on a vote-by-vote basis.

This kind of arrangement has been used in the past. A Lib-Lab pact allowed Callaghan’s minority government to continue to govern from 1977 to 1979. David Steel’s Liberal Party secured relatively minor policy concessions in return.

Confidence and supply agreements are generally considered a less stable form of government, with constant horse trading over parliamentary votes, but it may be the only option if a full coalition deal isn’t possible.

How long do coalition negotiations take?

There is no formal time limit for coalition negotiations.

There have been many predictions, including by former Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell, that coalition negotiations will take longer this time than the 5 day negotiations in 2010, especially if a simple two party deal isn’t viable.

However, in practice, there will be considerable pressure from the media, from the financial markets and as a result of the need for all the parties involved to maintain internal unity, for negotiations to be concluded relatively quickly. In his book 5 Days in May, Lord Adonis also points to the limits of human endurance for protracted negotiations, especially after a gruelling election campaign.

Parliament returns on 18 May, 10 days after results day, it is almost unthinkable that it would not be clear who would form the next government by then.  The Queen’s Speech, the first formal test of the Government’s parliamentary authority is currently scheduled for 27 May.

What is the role of the Queen?

The Queen plays no part in coalition negotiations. It is up to the politicians to work out a political agreement and the Prime Minister to make a recommendation to the Queen regarding who should be called to form the next government if it is not him. She will however be kept informed of progress at all times.

Could there be a second General Election?

If no party can form a coalition or secure enough support to win a vote on its Queen’s Speech motion the Fixed-Term Parliament Act allows the Commons to pass a motion for an early general election but requires that it is supported by two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons (in effect both the government and main opposition).

An alternative, and a more likely outcome, would be that a motion of no confidence would be passed by simple majority. In this case there is a 14 day window for an alternative government to be formed and confirmed, or else another election is automatically stimulated.

In theory a second general election could be held as early as 9th July!

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