Governing Without a Majority: Can May’s minority government last?

September 15, 2017

The main selling feature of Britain’s first past the post (FPTP) electoral system is that it produces strong single party governments formed of members of parties that alternate from election to election. One party governs whilst one party opposes and the odds and sods can do as they please. Despite this, two of the last three general elections have managed to produce hung-parliaments and one has produced a wafer-thin overall majority. Unlike their counterparts in Europe and the devolved assemblies, minority governments at Westminster have tended not to last all that long. With parliamentary arithmetic following the 2017 general election on a knife-edge and the government hanging on by a thread, what does history say about Mrs May and the Tories sticking it out until 2022?

In January 1910, the general election returned the first hung parliament of the 20th century. Herbert Asquith had called the election to break the deadlock with the House of Lords over the ‘people’s budget’. Asquith’s Liberal Party remained the largest party but were 62 seats short of an overall majority. The Liberals remained in power, with the support of the Irish Parliamentary and Labour parties. The government survived until December when a second election was called to end yet another deadlock with the House of Lords, this time over reform. Once again, the Liberals formed the largest party, down 2 seats with the Conservatives fractionally behind and the Irish Parliamentary Party holding the balance of power. The Irish Parliamentary Party continued to support the Liberals and Asquith remained Prime Minister. The Liberals governed in minority until 1915, when the general election was deferred until after the conclusion of World War One and an all-party coalition was formed. 

Thirteen years later, in 1923, Stanley Baldwin took the country to the polls seeking to gain a mandate; Baldwin had replaced Andrew Bonar Law as Prime Minister on 23rd May. The Conservatives had won the 1922 general election with an overall majority of 73 but Baldwin felt bound by Bonar Law’s promise that there would be no introduction of tariffs. Baldwin chose to call an election in December 1923 around the issue of the introduction of protectionist tariffs, which he hoped would bring about an economic recovery. The election backfired on Baldwin. The Conservatives lost 86 seats and returned 258 MPs, well short of the required 308 for an overall majority. Baldwin remained as Prime Minister until parliament met in January when he lost a confidence motion and resigned. Ramsay Macdonald was then invited to form Britain’s first Labour government. Macdonald’s government succeeded in getting a Queen’s speech through the commons, with the support of Herbert Asquith’s 158 Liberal MPs. Macdonald’s government survived for ten months but in October 1924, it was defeated in a motion of no confidence and a general election was subsequently called. The result was a landslide victory for Stanley Baldwin and the Conservatives, who returned to power with an overall majority in excess of 200. The increase in the Conservative number of seats came primarily at the expense of the Liberals, who lost 118 seats, but Labour also lost 40 of their 191 seats. 

The ‘flapper election’ of 1929 was held as Stanley Baldwin’s government came to the end of its five-year term in office. The election was fought against a backdrop of rising unemployment and the 1926 general strike was fresh in the minds of voters. Once again, a hung parliament was the result. For the first time in the party’s history, Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour finished as the largest parliamentary grouping with 287 seats, with the Conservatives not too far behind on 260 seats. As with 1923, the Liberals held the balance of power. Stanley Baldwin refused to negotiate with David Lloyd George and resigned. For the second time, Ramsay Macdonald returned to Downing Street at the head of a minority Labour government. The government was in a considerably stronger position than the first Labour government but with the onset of the Great Depression, splits formed within the cabinet over the issue of spending cuts and an unworkable situation resulted. Macdonald chose to form a National Government with members of the Conservative and Liberal parties in August 1931, thus bringing an end to the second Labour government. Macdonald then called a general election and the National Government was returned with an overwhelming overall majority. 

After 1929, the next ten general elections produced governments with overall majorities and then, in February 1974, Edward Heath called a snap election in an attempt to gain a mandate to deal with the striking miners. Both the Conservative and Labour parties lost vote share but there was a small swing to Labour and Labour returned as the largest party, with 301 MPs whilst Edward Heath’s Conservatives were just behind with 297 seats. In the popular vote, the Conservatives finished marginally ahead of Labour and Heath remained in Downing Street over the weekend and attempted to form a government. Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals had won over 19 percent of the vote but returned just 14 MPs. Alone, they were not enough to form a majority with either of the main parties without a third partner. Heath offered the Conservative whip to the Ulster Unionists, who had withdrawn from their alliance with the Conservatives following the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973. He was eventually unable to pursue this as United Ulster Council said that the whip would have to be offered to all 11 of its members and that included the DUP’s Iain Paisley who had opposed the establishment of a power-sharing executive in January. Heath also invited the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, to Downing Street for coalition talks. Thorpe was keen to avoid the press and left his North Devon constituency in theatrical style. He sent his car to a neighbouring farm, donned wellington boots and a country coat on top of his suit and then walked across three wet fields before being driven to Taunton station where he boarded a train to London. Thorpe and Heath negotiated over the weekend. In the end, the Conservative-Liberal talks failed as Heath was unable to offer the Liberals the major electoral reforms that Thorpe demanded. Heath then resigned and Harold Wilson formed a minority government. 

The government successfully passed a Queen’s speech through the commons but in June and July 1974, Wilson suffered 18 commons defeats and with the polls registering leads of up to 10 points for Labour, he ceased the opportunity called an election in October of 1974 with the aim of gaining a working majority. In the event, Labour limped over the finishing line with 319 seats, an overall majority of three. Things were far from certain and within days of James Callaghan taking over from Wilson in April 1976, the defection of John Stonehouse resulted in Labour being left one seat short of an overall majority. The years that followed have become the stuff of legend whenever the spectre of minority government has been raised. Dying MPs were regularly brought in by ambulance to ensure that the government could get its business done and the opposition often tried to ambush the government with votes in the middle of the night. Callaghan was defeated over 30 times in the commons and in March 1977, the Lib-Lab pact was negotiated. In this arrangement, the Labour Party accepted some Liberal Party policy in exchange for Liberal support in any confidence motion. The pact came to an end in September 1978 when Callaghan was widely expected to call a general election. Callaghan chose not to as private polling suggested that he might be left in the same position as where he started from, without an overall majority. Callaghan was then forced to rely on the votes of the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists and the Ulster Unionists in order to win votes but slowly support for the government eroded as the Winter of Discontent took hold and following the 1979 devolution referendums, Margaret Thatcher tabled a motion of no confidence. The vote was incredibly close but the government was defeated 311-310 and a general election called for 3rd May. After the vote, there were cheers from the Conservative backbenches and Labour left-wingers sung ‘The Red Flag’. Callaghan famously announced ‘We shall take our case to the country’. In the ensuing election, Labour lost 50 seats and the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher won an overall majority of 43. 

In the dying days of John Major’s Conservative administration in 1996, the government slipped into minority as a result of by-election defeats and defections. Fortunately, Major had a cushion of nine Ulster Unionist MPs to make up the shortfall and the government was almost at the end of its parliamentary term anyway. The 2010 election brought an end to thirteen years of Labour government but for the first time in 36 years no party was returned with an overall majority. The Conservatives won the most seats and votes. The Liberal Democrats were in the position of kingmaker with their 57 MPs and formed a formal coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives. Contrary to widespread belief at the time, the coalition governed for a full term and in 2015, the Conservatives went on to gain a working majority of their own.

The 2017 snap election contained earie echoes of February 1974 when despite predictions of a 100-seat Conservative majority and 20-point poll leads, the Conservatives lost their overall majority. The Conservatives were left with 317 seats, four seats short of the required 321 for an overall working majority (when you remove the seven abstentionist Sinn Fein MPs and the non-voting Speaker from the mix). The Conservatives opted for a confidence and supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, who have ten MPs. This alliance can muster 327 votes, a working majority of 12 over the other parties. With 262 MPs, Labour are well short of a working majority and a Labour/ Scottish National Party agreement would still only be able to secure 297 votes. Indeed, added together the opposition can only get to 315, 2 seats less than the Conservatives. Therefore, so long as the Conservative and Democratic Unionist whips can ensure discipline and the two parties continue to cooperate, they can win votes in the commons. Only in the event that the Democratic Unionists actually vote with the opposition, or there is a small-scale Conservative rebellion, does the government risk defeat. Based on the current parliamentary arithmetic, if the government was to fall, a Labour administration of any kind would be unlikely without a general election as it would require the support of virtually every non-Conservative MP in order to have a bare working majority and would require discipline in five separate parties each with their own agenda and policies. Difficult, but not impossible.

So, three months into Mrs May's strong and stable minority government, what are her government's chances of bucking the trend and lasting for a full parliamentary term? Up to now, things haven't been too rocky but the signs are there that things might not be too calm for all that much longer. On major pieces of legislation relating to Brexit, there seems to be a small amount breathing room for the Conservatives. At the second reading of the Great Repeal Bill, there were seven Labour MPs that voted with the government and several Labour abstentions. On other matters, such as NHS pay and tuition fees, the Democratic Unionists have hinted that they are willing to vote against the Conservatives and that could certainly make for some interesting votes. As things stand, the parliamentary arithmetic favours the Conservatives and gives them at least a shot at staying in office for the lion’s share of the government’s five-year term. History, however, is far less optimistic for the Tories and suggests that we are in for a fascinating few months.

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