Just two days after the general election, Professor Meg Russell, Dr Jennifer Hudson and Dr Alan Renwick of the Constitution Unit spoke at UCL’s It’s All Academic festival about the constitutional and political fallout. Michela Palese summarises what they said.
Theresa May called for a snap election on 18 April in order to increase the Conservative Party’s majority in the House of Commons and give herself a strong personal mandate for the upcoming Brexit negotiations. The election took place on Thursday 8 June, and its results caught both the Prime Minister and the general public by surprise. No party secured an overall majority of seats and the United Kingdom has its second hung parliament in less than a decade. The Conservatives are left relying on the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to form a government.
On the morning of Saturday 10 June the Constitution Unit hosted an event at UCL’s ‘It’s All Academic’ Festival. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, the Unit’s Professor Meg Russell, Dr Jennifer Hudson and Dr Alan Renwick provided some initial analysis of the results and explored some of the likely challenges facing the new government.
Candidates and campaign
Jennifer Hudson analysed the election from the point of view of campaigning and the composition and diversity of the new parliament.
She argued that, contrary to the Prime Minister’s expectations, it was hard to make the case that the election was about Brexit. In fact, according to a survey that she had conducted in early May, most people did not seem to have strong feelings towards the Brexit negotiations or leaving the European Union without an agreement.
As shown in the diagram, around 25 per cent of respondents felt either depressed or angry about the negotiations and the prospect of exiting the EU without a deal, but the general feeling on the topic was of relative indifference. This may reflect a shift in the debate on Brexit, with a majority of ‘remainers’ accepting the result and wishing for negotiations to proceed, and only around 20 per cent continuing to claim that the UK should remain in the EU and that there should be a second referendum.
Contrary to received wisdom, the campaign mattered. The Conservatives’ 21 point lead over the Labour Party at the time that the election was called had fallen to two points by polling day. Some of this can be explained by the fact that the Prime Minister banked the entire campaign on her ‘strong and stable’ leadership, having failed to demonstrate any, particularly on the ‘fundmentals’ – the economy and immigration. A u-turn on social care policy and the inclusion of controversial issues like fox hunting and ending free school meals in the Conservative Party manifesto, further damaged the Prime Minister’s reputation and the Conservative campaign. Moreover, May failed to make a positive a case for why people should vote for her, instead relying on Corbyn’s low ratings and a divided Labour party. Crucially, Dr Hudson concluded that Theresa May’s premiership may not now last very long, while Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party looks unlikely to be challenged in the near future.
The election produced some good news, however, with regards to the profile of candidates entering the House of Commons. A record number of female MPs (208) were elected in 2017, with women now making up 32 per cent of the chamber. However, this represents only a 3 per cent increase in women MPs since 2015. The new House of Commons is also increasingly diverse in other ways, with 52 BAME MPs (8 per cent of the total), two new disabled MPs and 45 out LGBTQ MPs (7 per cent of the total), a world record.
Performance of the electoral system
Analysing the performance of the electoral system, Alan Renwick pointed out that, whereas the main advantage often claimed for first past the post (FPTP) is its tendency to deliver single-party majority governments, it has now failed to do this for two out of the last three elections. If this pattern continues, the case for FPTP may be increasingly difficult to make.
On the other hand, in other respects the electoral system performed relatively well compared to recent years. The government has the strongest electoral base for one party so far this century, with 42.4 per cent of all voters (29.1 per cent of the eligible electorate) voting Conservative. The party’s vote share is only slightly lower than Tony Blair’s in 1997 and the same as Margaret Thatcher’s in 1983.
With regards to assessing the proportionality of the election result (defined by Gallagher as ‘a situation in which every party receives exactly the same share of the seats as it won of the votes’), the latest election was the most proportional since 1955. This reflects the return of two-party politics, with 82.4 per cent of the electorate voting either Conservative or Labour (a share higher than at any election since 1970) – though how far that is based on genuine support for these parties or, rather, tactical voting remains unclear.
Dr Renwick finally considered a further concern: that the electoral system exaggerates regional disparities and drives the different parts of the UK apart. The 2015 general election highlighted considerable divisions among the regions of the UK, with the Conservatives dominating in the South West (47 out of 55 seats) and South East (72 out of 83 seats), Labour in the North East (26 of 29 seats) and the SNP in Scotland (56 of 59 seats). This time around, many of these lopsided majorities have weakened – especially the latter. Further, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs now have relevance in Westminster that they previously lacked.
Alan Renwick’s analysis of the electoral system’s performance is set out in a separate post on our blog.
Parliament and power
Prior to the election, Theresa May’s relationship with parliament had been problematic, with the Prime Minister feeling that she was under excessive scrutiny. With the election failing to give the Conservatives an enhanced majority, Meg Russell set out how the Prime Minister will now face significantly greater challenges in the new parliament (for a more in-depth analysis, read her detailed blog post from Friday 9 June).
The Prime Minister will need virtually every vote available from her own party and the DUP to counter the so-called ‘progressive alliance’ of Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens and Liberal Democrats, which will be keen to defeat her in the Commons. In this situation the whipping arrangements in the new parliament will need to be much stricter to ensure that Conservative MPs and, in particular, those who may now have lost trust in May’s leadership, are kept in line. There will be immediate challenges, for example, if DUP MPs are away in Northern Ireland or Conservative MPs are ill or on official ministerial visits outside London.
Passing legislation both in the Commons chamber and in bill committees, where it is unclear whether Theresa May will have a majority, will become much more difficult. As the Conservative minority government may be defeated at any point, we are likely to witness less legislation. The so-called Great Repeal Bill, in particular, will face an even tougher passage than it would have had it been introduced during the 2015 parliament.
The new parliament will in some ways resemble that of 1992, where John Major had been on the ropes due to the Maastricht Treaty and backbench rebellions. However, Professor Russell noted that John Major at least had a Commons majority for most of his tenure, so Theresa May’s position may be even worse (perhaps resembling Labour’s perilous position following the two general elections of 1974).
The Prime Minister does not enjoy a majority in the House of Lords either, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats outnumbering the Conservatives. In the 2016-17 session the previous government was defeated 38 times. In the 1974 and 1992 parliaments the Lords did not constitute much of a problem for government, but since the removal of the hereditary peers in 1999 it has become more confident in challenging governments. Nonetheless, the House of Lords remains an unelected chamber and, due to legitimacy concerns, its ability to challenge the House of Commons will remain somewhat constrained.
The Prime Minister will thus find herself in the tricky situation of balancing support in the House of Commons, where she will have to appease the DUP so as to maintain their confidence, and in the House of Lords, where the Labour and Liberal Democrat peers have a political majority.
A final problem for Prime Minister May is posed by the mechanisms for accountability and questioning of government actions which have increasingly developed since 1974 and 1992. Among these are Urgent Questions, strengthened select committees, and backbench committee debates in the Commons. In the previous session her government was already forced to back down over Brexit matters as a result of opposition day debates.
In sum, Theresa May will find herself under more parliamentary scrutiny, rather than less as she had hoped, and we are likely to witness a decrease in the amount of legislation being proposed.
Finally, Alan Renwick looked ahead to the likely consequences of the general election result for Brexit.
Negotiations between the UK government and EU officials are due to start on 19 June. The Article 50 process having been triggered in March, the Brexit clock is now ticking and the UK has less than two years to complete the negotiations with the European Union. Given Theresa May’s precarious leadership position, Dr Renwick suggested, it is likely that the Conservatives will remove her sooner rather than later. Until we have a more permanent Prime Minister, it may be difficult to commence the Brexit talks in earnest.
The issue of time also affects the form that the negotiations will take, with a two-stage deal appearing more likely. This would entail negotiating the terms of withdrawal (the so-called ‘divorce deal’) by the end of March 2019, followed by a transition phase during which the UK would no longer be a member of the Union, but would still be in the single market and the EU for practical purposes while it negotiates the future relationship of the UK to the EU.
In addition, the greater weight of the DUP, the Scottish Conservatives, and the opposition now make a ‘softer’ form of Brexit than Theresa May has envisaged appear more likely.
None of the main political parties, with the exception of the Liberal Democrats, are proposing a second referendum on EU membership, and such a referendum will not take place without a shift in public opinion against Brexit. But the Commons majority may now be more willing to listen to such a shift in opinion than was expected before the election.
Hence what will happen during the Brexit negotiations remains to be seen and public opinion will play a big part in driving what politicians do.
Rather than providing stability, the 2017 general election has brought uncertainty to the fore and this is likely to pervade British politics for the near future. Theresa May’s competence and leadership have been questioned as a result of her electoral campaign and, while she has been able to form a new government, the Prime Minister will face fresh and more intense challenges both within her party and in an increasingly diverse parliament. The Brexit question will continue to dominate parliamentary affairs and the lack of a stable government will have repercussions for the UK’s negotiations with the European Union. Whether we will be heading to the polls once again in the coming months remains to be seen.
About the author
Michela Palese is a Research Assistant (McDougall Fellow) at the Constitution Unit.