Peter Riddell is Director of the Institute for Government which is carrying out a study into governing without a majority.
Paul Goodman was right to argue on this site last weekend that a minority government may be more likely than a full-blown coalition if there is a hung parliament next May. The bruises from the current coalition and changes in party strengths since 2010 have shifted expectations against a further coalition. And a lot of thought is now under way as to how a minority government would function, and how long it might last.
First, if you thought the “five days in May” of 2010 tested the political and media worlds’ patience, we could be in for an even longer wait in six months’ time. At least in 2010, the first and third parties in terms of numbers of MPs added up to a clear Commons majority. But some recent polls suggest that the first and third parties may not pass the winning post for an overall majority, even discounting the handful of Sinn Fein MPs who will not take their seats.
That calculation makes much harder not only the formation of a coalition, but also reaching an informal arrangement. A multi-party deal is possible, but in theory only since the fourth, fifth and sixth parties, whether the SNP, DUP or UKIP have nothing to gain by allying with the larger parties. Of course, the SNP could be ahead of the Lib Dems on some projections, which makes a deal even less likely. And that could takes us back a century to when the Irish Nationalists held the balance of power.
Any of these outcomes could take a long time to sort out. It could be a good month after polling day before the House of Commons votes on the Queen’s Speech and determines whether a minority government can remain in office. That explains the calls by the Institute for Government and others, including the Constitution Unit at UCL, for a much earlier investiture vote – essentially a confidence vote in a new Prime Minister, as already happens in Scotland. This could be held within a week or two of polling day just after the election of the Speaker and the swearing in of MPs. That would reduce market, political and media uncertainty.
Second, how stable would a minority government be? An Institute for Government/Constitution Unit report five years ago, Making Minority Government Work, showed sharply contrasting experiences. The record in Canada earlier that decade ( before Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a majority in 2011) pointed to unstable minority governments and political and constitutional crises. But in New Zealand and Scotland (from 2007 to 2011), minority governments were more stable and effective.
Talk of confidence and supply agreements is an over-simplification. There is really a range of options from formal agreements not to vote down a Budget or support a no confidence motion, usually in return for consultation, as in the Lib-Lab pact of 1977-78, to the more common situation where a minority government calls the bluff of other parties. The absence of a government majority does not mean that the opposition parties have a majority. They often have different interests and fears. The SNP survived four years because John Swinney, then as now the Finance Secretary, did deals over the annual budget, usually with the Tories, and because Labour and other parties backed away from forcing an early election. As the SNP discovered, governments can also do a lot without having a majority by the use of the official machine and executive powers.
Of course, minority governments are constrained. They have to negotiate with other parties to get business through, and they will face defeats in parliament from time to time. This involves a shift away from the ‘we must win everything’ culture of the whips office to a more flexible attitude, defining what is a matter of confidence and what is not. There is a lesson here for some Tory MPs who believe that a minority government in 2010 would have been some form of liberation. Much of the most far-reaching legislation on health, welfare and tuition fees, about which many Lib Dems now complain, was only enacted because of the coalition and would never have been approved with a Tory minority government.
Third, minority governments are likely to be less stable than coalitions because of the lack of a majority. That does not prevent them enduring, as the SNP showed in face of divided opposition parties. But the possible circumstances next May could be unstable if no two parties can provide a majority and there are vocal smaller groups, such as the SNP and UKIP (with latter likely to be much stronger in votes than MPs). In the past, the expectation has been that there will be an early second general election, as in the seven month parliament of 1974. But now we have the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. That has not only provided greater certainty – though with scant evidence of better pre-election decision-making – but has also helped to hold the coalition together at times of maximum strain. But the real reason the coalition has endured is that the electoral risks of break-up and an early election have been too great for both the coalition parties. That may not apply after next May.
However, the Act is not a straitjacket. There are specific provisions to over-ride the five year term, if a two-thirds majority of MPs votes for early dissolution or a simple majority votes for a no confidence motion in the government and no new viable government can be formed within 14 days. On the Continent where fixed terms are more the norm, the pattern is more for changes of government within a parliamentary term rather than early elections.
A minority government might try to invoke one of those provisions and it would be hard for opposition parties to resist a motion for an early election. In the longer-term, however, the real question is whether we revert to majority governments, or whether we are moving towards a permanent multi-party system without single party majorities. In the latter case, coalitions and minority governments may form and re-form without the need for fresh elections.