Assessing the durability of the Conservative minority government: lessons from New Zealand

Minority government is rare in the UK, but relatively common in many other parliamentary democracies. In this post Jonathan Boston considers the prospects for Theresa May’s government. He draws on the experience in New Zealand, where since becoming the norm in the late 1990s minority governments have proved durable. However, he argues that present circumstances in the UK mean that May’s current government is very unlikely to last a full term.

Minority governments in Britain are relatively rare. But this is not the case in many other parliamentary democracies, especially those with proportional representation voting systems.

During the post-war period, about a third of governments in advanced democracies lacked a parliamentary majority. They were thus dependent on one or more supporting parties, often through a negotiated agreement on matters of confidence and supply. Such agreements vary significantly in policy specificity, consultative arrangements and expected duration.

Minority government in New Zealand can be effective and durable

In New Zealand, there were no post-war minority governments until 1996 when the mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral system was introduced. The impact was immediate and significant: no party has won an overall parliamentary majority since then and during most of these years the party or parties represented in the cabinet lacked a majority.

It has, however, developed some novel governance arrangements to cope with the political exigencies of MMP. In most parliamentary democracies, members of parties supporting a minority government do not hold ministerial office. In New Zealand, by contrast, it is common for only one party to be represented in the cabinet; this party, in turn, is supported by several minor parties, each of which holds a ministerial post outside the cabinet.

Collectively, the government and support parties have a parliamentary majority, but ministers outside the cabinet are not bound by collective cabinet responsibility unless specifically agreed between the parties. There is, in effect, ‘selective collective responsibility’, with ministers able to advance different views publicly on important matters of public policy.

These arrangements have proved both effective and durable: the 1999 Labour-led Government survived three terms in office and the current National-led Government, formed in 2008, is close to completing its third term and will likely retain office after the election in September.

What determines the stability (or otherwise) of a minority government?

Although minority governments in New Zealand are relatively durable, such stability cannot be guaranteed. International evidence shows that, on average, single-party majority governments are much more durable than coalitions and minority governments. Significantly, minority governments – whether single- or multi-party – are the least durable, surviving on average just over a year.

There is, however, much variability, both internationally and within individual jurisdictions. In general, minority governments are least durable when they are unpopular, when the governing party or parties are divided internally, when forming a different government is relatively easy if at least one minor party switches allegiance, and when the rules governing confidence motions and the calling of elections are flexible.

There is little prospect of Theresa May’s government lasting a full term

The Conservatives enjoy support from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), at least in the short term, to ensure a parliamentary majority on matters of confidence and supply. Equally, the parliamentary arithmetic makes it almost impossible for Labour to form an alternative government. Perhaps in normal circumstances and with remarkable luck, the Conservatives might survive for the majority of a five-year term. But these are far from normal times.

First, the UK government and Prime Minister are already unpopular, following a flawed campaign and a demoralising election outcome. Given the myriad of economic, social and environmental problems facing the country and the enormous uncertainties surrounding Brexit, the Government’s popularity will likely deteriorate further. This will intensify internal divisions within the Conservative Party. But replacing Theresa May is unlikely to stop this; a new leader would still have to navigate deep divisions within the party and face pressure to secure their own electoral mandate.

Second, Britain may well be heading for the most serious political – and perhaps economic – crisis in several generations. Deep divisions over Brexit mean that ministers may be unable to secure a parliamentary majority on the legislation needed to deliver the UK’s exit from the EU. This is particularly likely if Brexit has a negative impact on the economy and public finances, at a time when there are strong public demands for greater expenditure on education, health, housing and social care.

Third, if the government fails to secure clear backing for its preferred Brexit option, there is bound to be demand for a second referendum. In fact, this may be the only constitutionally legitimate – and politically acceptable – way of breaking the impasse. And if a second referendum did reverse the vote for Brexit, then a minority Conservative administration would surely struggle to remain in office.

Of course, other scenarios are possible that are more favourable to government survival. For instance, the outcome of the Brexit negotiations may command majority support, both in parliament and more broadly. But, on balance, I suspect that the composition of the UK government by mid-2020 will be different to the one in office today.

This post was originally published on the Institute for Government blog and is re-posted with permission.

About the author

Jonathan Boston is Professor of Public Policy at Victoria University of Wellington. He has published extensively on comparative government, public management, and various areas of public policy.

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