Peter Riddell is Director of the Institute for Government.
Mark Wallace makes some strong points here on this site about the possible messiness of another hung parliament, and the complicating, and still largely unappreciated, constraints of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act in making a second election harder. But he underestimates the potential durability and effectiveness of a minority government.
Of course, minority government is frustrating for the party in power, and its supporters. That is one of the prices of not winning an overall majority. But this situation presents equally demanding challenges for the opposition parties. It is wrong to view the prospects just in terms of the party numbers and the potential to outvote a minority government. Would opposition parties want to defeat a government and trigger a no confidence motion, and the 14 day timetable leading to a second election under the fixed-term act?
The Conservatives are probably the only party who might want, and could afford, a second general election this year. No one else will want one. And there is a specifically Scottish factor. If the SNP do as well as the polls currently indicate on May 7th, will they want to put that at risk ahead of the – for them – vital Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2016?
There are plenty of examples of minority governments working and lasting. The SNP, which won 47 seats out of 129 in Scotland in 2007, just one more than Labour, managed to survive and prosper as a minority, essentially by calling the bluff of the opposition parties who never wanted to bring down the government. Stephen Harper ran a minority government in Canada for five years, and Denmark and Sweden have been ruled in this way for 70 out of the past 100 years. While minority governments do not last as long as majority governments, their life expectancy is nearly as long as governments like the current coalition.
As Akash Paun, my Institute for Government colleague, points out in a new report, “Westminster in an age of minorities’, the key to survival is adaptation. Unlike a coalition with a clear majority, where the main decisions are taken within the executive, with a minority government the focus shifts to the legislature. A minority government has to be flexible. The majoritarian and winner-takes-all instincts and behaviour at Westminster have to be abandoned in favour of building bridges with other parties, and being open to concessions on policy and spending decisions. This also involves managing expectations. Government proposals may, and will be, defeated and amended.
But minority governments have many levers of power at their disposal which do not involve parliament, notably over spending, appointments and the award of contracts. And, within the legislature, they can put together temporary coalitions on particular issues, particularly since all opposition parties rarely agree. So as Paun argues, ‘a government without a majority can still be a powerful and effective force’
Now, this is not what most candidates, and potential ministers, fighting for election on May 7 want. But politics is about making the best of what voters deliver. A coalition has delivered most of what the Conservatives proposed five years ago. A minority government would be more constraining, unfamiliar and undoubtedly messy. But it need not be as bad as some fear. Just ask Alex Salmond.