Why Political Uncertainty Might Become the Norm

Glen O’Hara | 13 June 2017

UK Parliament, Garry Knight, CC-BY-2.0

Hung parliaments always seem to come as a surprise to the British electorate. Even when it seemed a fairly likely outcome, given the polls and political situation in 2010, few really seemed to believe that it would actually happen. Similarly, this time around, quite a few polls – and YouGov’s now-famous seat-by-seat polling model – pointed in that direction. A small- to medium-sized, not a large, Conservative majority seemed the most likely outcome by polling day.

All the while, the precarious Conservative majority hung by the thread of those Liberal Democrat seats they had managed to seize from their erstwhile coalition allies in 2015. Even a tiny net Liberal Democrat recovery against the Conservatives – they captured Kingston, Oxford West and Abingdon and Twickenham from Theresa May’s party, for the loss of Southport – played a small but significant role in robbing the Conservatives of their majority.

So now the greatest political, legislative and administrative challenge that has faced the UK since the Second World War is in the hands of a government without an overall edge in the House of Commons. The Brexit process would have been hard going in any case, involving long and exhausting negotiations with the European Union institutions and states, the need for a Great Repeal Bill repatriating European powers, and then a vote on the final deal. Now it has become even more complex – raising the prospect of both a confused train wreck of a Brexit, or paradoxically a much more consensual ‘softer’ version.

Ministers – and especially the Whips’ Office – are going to become very tired, as the exhausting experience of the minority Callaghan administration between 1976 and 1979 demonstrated. The detailed scrutiny of day-to-day government, as well as pushing through laws, gets much tougher when the executive cannot rely on a parliamentary majority. As a minority government, they will lose their guaranteed majorities on parliamentary committees shadowing each government department; and they will not now be able to insist on getting their own way in the House of Lords under the so-called ‘Salisbury Convention’ that the Lords give way on manifesto pledges that have been backed by the electorate.

Three seats short of a working majority, the Conservatives will now have to work with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists if they are to establish any sort of legislative purchase in the new parliament. Although the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and even Labour might be brought in on some votes, the Liberal Democrats and SNP cannot be seen to co-operate with the Conservatives in any formal way: their voters simply would not wear it.

Any alliance with the DUP has several implications. First, the unionists will not want a crash or ultra-Brexit under any circumstances. That would raise the prospect of the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, slowing or even curtailing the free movement of people and goods on which Northern Ireland’s economy depends. Secondly, the DUP will undoubtedly demand a better financial deal for Northern Ireland: simple to agree overall, because the sums of money would be quite small in terms of the UK budget, but politically dangerous if Northern Ireland comes to be seen as receiving preferential treatment as the other UK nations struggle on with austerity. Thirdly, the association with hard-line social conservatives may re-toxify the Conservative brand, already in deep trouble in the more urban, cosmopolitan and liberal areas of England, Scotland and Wales.

All in all, relying on the DUP therefore has several downsides for May. It makes her threat to walk away from EU talks entirely rather less credible, because the DUP need a deal on Northern Ireland’s border. It cramps her room for manoeuvre. It makes yet another general election – almost certainly under a different Conservative leader – rather less likely, because of the added unpopularity the DUP will bring with them.

Given the loose form of any confidence and supply agreement, in which parties agree only to support budgets and refuse to actually bring the government down, the DUP can apply pressure on the Conservatives on a case-by-case basis. They can withhold backing for any changes they dislike – and they have already signalled that they will not agree to attacks on pensioners’ winter fuel payments. There will be little the government can do but acquiesce, unless the issue is one of those relatively rare cases where they can bring over Liberal Democrat or SNP votes (any liberal reforms on social issues might fall into this category). So an unhealthy pallor may hang over this government, which might just about manage to settle the main lines of a deal on Brexit, but which will be constantly held to ransom by MPs from Northern Ireland when one of the reasons the Conservatives are in office at all is English fear of SNP dictation in 2015.

All that said, the Conservatives will not be entirely at everyone else’s mercy. They still have a majority of three over all their established opponents (Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the one Green MP) added together. They can win plenty of votes even if the DUP abstain. They also have a healthy majority in England, and recent reforms to carve out English Votes for English Laws means that domestic legislation there will be simpler than on a UK level.

Governments have many ways of carrying on without an overall majority, as Labour showed in the late 1970s and John Major’s Conservative government demonstrated as its majority evaporated between 1992 and 1997. The executive can control much of the news agenda, as well as House of Commons business. Ministers still have hold of the purse strings, and can govern across a wide front using statutory orders and administrative action should they choose to. With Labour now likely to enjoy better poll ratings in the face of May’s new vulnerability, the cabinet may well choose to wait and see rather than risk a snap election that – this time – they might actually lose.

Brexit negotiations are going to be tough – a draining series of managed retreats and compromises that may not look all that successful when ministers recommend paying a high price tag for access to institutions we could once use as members. Selling that deal to this House of Commons looks very difficult indeed, meaning that this parliament will probably not run its full five-year course. But don’t be surprised if it lasts rather longer than you think – an unattractive thought, perhaps, for all involved.

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Oxford Brookes University

Prof Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. His recent book is The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan 2017) and his blog is Public Policy and the Past.