How small is a minority government? I know the textbook answer: it’s any government that doesn’t have a majority of the seats in the Commons. But the answer in practice will be much more complicated. The Conservatives could certainly hope to form a relatively stable minority government if they won, say, 320 seats at the forthcoming election, just under half of all those on offer. But 290 seats would be a very different proposition, and make governing utterly contingent on the sizes and inclinations of the other parties. So, I ask again: how small is a minority government?

It’s never easy starting an article with a question that cannot, as yet, be answered. But such is the nature of this election of hung expectations and tiny margins. We don’t really know anything. We can only guess. Here, then, is some guesswork on how a Conservative minority government might operate.

The Damoclean threat of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act

Minority governance isn’t a novelty in British politics. We actually experienced it as recently as 1997, towards the fag-end of the Major years, after the Conservatives’ majority had been overturned by a series of defections and resignations. And before that, of course, there were the tumultuous 1970s, when Labour spent a few years governing in the minority.

But, as I said in a recent To The Point post, there’s a major constitutional difference between now and then. It’s called the Fixed-terms Parliament Act of 2011. Going back through Major and Wilson and further into the past, Prime Ministers have been able to call general elections more or less whenever they like. But David Cameron has removed that power from himself and his successors. According to the provisions of the Act, general elections must be spaced five years apart, unless one of two conditions are met:

  1. The Government loses a vote of no confidence, and another Government isn’t formed within 14 days.
  2. Two-thirds of the House votes to hold an election.

These conditions are of more than academic significance. They could influence the way the next Government is formed. I mean, just read the first of them again: if the Government loses a vote of no confidence, the other parties get a fortnight to form a Government of their own. That’s a terribly sobering prospect for any party hoping to get by without a majority. It’s the sword hanging above their scalp.

Here’s a scenario to describe the sharpness of that sword. The Conservatives emerge from the next election as the largest party in Parliament, yet without a majority. They might have considered another coalition with the Lib Dems, but sadly the proportions don’t really work out. Besides, the newer, slimmer Lib Dems aren’t willing to bind themselves to the dastardly Tories. And the Tories aren’t especially eager to bind themselves to the whining Lib Dems. Minority government is the only option.

In this case, David Cameron would still need to consider what the Lib Dems want. He couldn’t govern stridently. It’s that sword, you see. If the Conservatives produced a Queen’s Speech that was unpalatable to over half of the rest of the House, then it could give Ed Miliband a chance of forming an alternative government. And you can bet the Labour leader would try his damnedest to do so. Labour’s finances are probably in no shape to bear the costs of a second election. They’d rather hitch up with the SNP/the Greens/the Lib Dems/Whoever than risk fighting from a position of impecuniousness.

And so the Fixed-terms Parliament Act brings parties together in the end, even if unhappily. A Conservative minority government would probably have to seek Lib Dem approval for its work, whether through a confidence and supply arrangement, or something more informal than that. Otherwise, Miliband’s Crazy Gang is waiting in reserve.

The reassurances of confidence and supply

What form of minority government would you chose to lead? There are two forms in particular, although numerous varieties of both. The first is what I’d call an ad hoc minority government, which tries to get by from vote to vote, hoping that its policies will receive majority support in the Commons. The second is that founded on a confidence and supply arrangement, by which another party agrees to support the government on motions of confidence or budgeting, in return for… well, that would be subject to negotiations.

Both of these are similar insofar as they make the government censor itself. Without a confidence and supply arrangement, the government would have to pre-empt the whims and tempers of Parliament if it wanted to pass any legislation. With a confidence and supply arrangement, they would have to consider the whims and tempers of another party.

But a confidence and supply arrangement does create more certainty. Not only does it vastly reduce the chances of having your government voted into oblivion tomorrow, but it also lays firmer ground for a legislative programme. That policy the Lib Dems would instantly vote down if they saw it for the first time in Parliament? It could be a very different story if they have been promised something in advance. In this way, confidence and supply can work much like coalition – only without Vince Cable in the business department.

Confidence and supply can also mean broader groupings than either coalition or ad hoc minority government could achieve. It’s unlikely, for instance, that Lib Dem and UKIP MPs would naturally agree over much Conservative policy. But if they have both agreed to agree with it, thanks to separate formal arrangements with the Tory leadership, then they can skip into the division lobbies arm-in-arm.

Of course, similar miracles could happen informally. Conservative whips could make behind-the-scenes promises to Lib Dem and UKIP backbenchers, even if there is no confidence and supply arrangement in place. But that’s the cat-herders’ way. A proper arrangement would make everything easier.

The Coalition’s unfinished work

The greatest question hanging over any minority government is: what can they actually do? And, again, we must tumble into uncertainty. The answer will depend on a hundred unknowable variables, such as the makeup of Parliament and the outcome of any post-election negotiations.

But a Conservative minority government would at least have somewhere to begin. That is the benefit of five years in government, and particularly of five years in coalition. There are plenty of policies that the Coalition has started but not finished. And many of those unfinished policies feature in both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos. Would Nick Clegg really want to go back on them now? One assumes not.

Among these unfinished policies is the £15 billion road-building scheme that was announced alongside December’s Autumn Statement. So too is the grander scheme, of which it is a part, to revitalise the North. Projects such as these would always have reached into the next Parliament, such is their size and complexity. But seeing them emphasised so heavily in both Coalition parties’ manifestos does stoke your cynicism. Have the Conservatives and Lib Dems written a shared programme for government already?

There’s more. Both manifestos also mention Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit, which is set to be completed in 2017. Both commit to keep on raising the personal allowance until it reaches £12,500. This degree of harmony may not mean much in the final arithmetic of a hung parliament, but nor does it mean nothing. When government is an intricate game of who-wants-what, wanting the same thing can sometimes come in handy.

But the real joy of many of these unfinished policies is that all the legislative legwork, and indeed much of the administrative legwork, has already been done. A Conservative minority could simply get on with implementing Universal Credit across the land. It could continue nurturing new free schools and academies. It could lay down some tracks for HS2. Actually, scratch that last one: I’d rather they didn’t.

This might sound like a restricted form of government, based on victories past, but that’s the first thing that ministers would need to get over. Minority government is restricted government. Best to make as much of it as possible.

What else could be achieved?

While the Coalition’s unfinished business could be continued relatively easily by a Conservative minority government, what about everything else? And what about that which skulks beneath everything else – the deficit?

As it stands, the parties that the Conservatives could likelier do business with – the Lib Dems, UKIP, the DUP – are more or less okay with the general course of deficit reduction, but not with how it’s being achieved. The Lib Dems disagree with George Osborne’s proposed £12 billion of extra welfare cuts. UKIP would prefer to see less money going towards foreign aid and Europe. The DUP are queasy about the bedroom tax, or whatever you want to call it. And so on.

This setup could be regarded as either an opportunity or a misfortune. An opportunity because at least there’s a basis for negotiation with these parties, unlike with, say, the fiscally incontinent Greens. A misfortune because those are some pretty big qualms, and they will require some pretty big compromises if they’re to be overcome. Osborne would face the prospect of paying a high price to keep his policies intact – if there even is a price that’s high enough for the other parties – or simply jettisoning them.

But might the Chancellor jettison his fiscal promises without help from outside? As Paul Goodman suggested yesterday, a Conservative minority government could manage that all by itself. Not only will Tory ministers be tired of wielding the scissors; not only has the manifesto been filled out with spending commitments and tax cuts; but there’s also the possibility that Tory MPs will vote against their leadership. Those £12 billion of welfare cuts are particularly fraught with jeopardy. Where will they fall? On the poor? On the middle classes? Both? Either way, plenty of backbenchers will be disgruntled on their constituents’ behalf. No wonder Osborne is keeping schtum.

If you’re seeking solace against these grim possibilities, then look to the Cabinet Office. This is another department with unfinished business from the last Parliament, and that business is making government run cheaper and smoother. It could turn out to be the crutch of a minority Conservative government. Whilst controversy rages about this benefit cut or other, the Cabinet Office will be getting on with the quiet work of identifying savings along Whitehall. What’s more, I’m told that the biggest savings are yet to come. The cause of deficit reduction could survive even as Parliament hangs.

No-one be damned

What else would survive? The EU referendum? A British Bill of Rights? The cuts to Corporation Tax? The only response is a Gallic shrug and the words ça dépend.

It depends on all of the things I’ve mentioned above, but it also depends on something I haven’t: the temperament of the Tory leadership. Whatever the outcome of the forthcoming election, it will surely demand humility on their part. Double helpings of humility if the result is a minority government. They simply won’t be able to function if they rile up the other sides. ‘Damn them all! We’re governing as Conservatives!’ won’t cut it.

In practice, this will mean a studied consideration of what the other parties want, and a preparedness to give it to them. Here on ConHome we’ve already proposed three gifts that a 290-seat Conservative government might bear: Scottish home rule for the SNP, an early EU referendum for UKIP, and a mansion tax for the Lib Dems. But that generosity should also probably spread to Labour backbenchers. There’s no chance of a formal agreement with Ed Miliband’s party, but having a dozen of his MPs onside could make a difference when the margins are tight.

Clarity will be required as much as humility. A minority government cannot risk the mushiness that sometimes befell the Coalition. Did the Lib Dems really link their support for the boundary review to Lords reform? Or was that just done from spite after the country voted no to AV? The very existence of such questions could be fatal to a minority government. All sides must feel that they’re getting what they were promised, or agreements will be torn up in anger.

But there’s another side that would need to be brought along, and that is the Conservative Party itself. In some ways, this is the minimum requirement for minority government. If Cameron couldn’t count on the support of his own party, then what could he count on? Certainly not another five years.

Which returns me to a post I wrote a couple of years ago. In it, I suggested that Cameron make a “big, open and comprehensive offer” to his own party, much like the one he made to the Lib Dems in the immediate aftermath of the last election. That was necessary then, when the Prime Minister was dropping all his former convictions along the wayside, leaving us doubting whether they were convictions in the first place. But it would be even more necessary in the event of a minority government. Cameron would have to tell the ’22 Committee as clearly as he could: this is what I believe, this is what I will deliver, and this is where I will compromise. Some MPs would not like his position, but at least they would know that he has one. That is preferable to the alternative.

And then? The Sisyphean task of making the backbenches happy. The leadership’s cliquishness will have to make way for communality. The aloofness for amiability. The secretiveness for sincerity. And the whips will have to constantly report back on whether it’s working, among numerous other tasks that are crucial to the functioning of a minority government. I knew there had to be a reason why Michael Gove was moved into the role.