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.

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After the general election: what’s next?

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.

The Unit’s Alan Renwick (left), Meg Russell (centre) and Jennifer Hudson (right)

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.

Figure 1: Feelings of the British electorate on Brexit

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.

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What happens if the election really does produce a hung parliament?

A hung parliament is a possible – if still unlikely – outcome of the election on Thursday. Akash Paun discusses what would happen next if no one party has an overall majority once the results have declared. He explains that in the UK system ultimately who forms a government is determined by who is best placed to command the confidence of the House of Commons. 

The recent and dramatic shift in the polls makes a hung parliament a plausible, if still unlikely, outcome on Thursday. Westminster has little recent experience of inconclusive elections – just two since the war, in 1974 and 2010. A second hung parliament in seven years would make things interesting, but it would be no crisis.

The sky won’t fall in

A hung parliament might produce a period of uncertainty about the composition of the new administration. The UK is accustomed to a government being formed immediately, but the sky will not fall in if it takes a little longer for the situation to resolve itself. In 2010, it took five days before the handover from Gordon Brown to David Cameron.

The UK is very odd in its haste to form a new government within 24 hours of the polls closing. Fellow Westminster systems like Canada and Australia wait over a week before swearing in the Prime Minister, even when he or she has won a clear majority.

With Brexit talks due to start on 19 June, weeks of coalition negotiations – as in Germany, for example – would be unhelpful. But that is highly unlikely. If it takes a few days to clarify who is best placed to form a stable administration, then that time should be taken. And if the media can restrain itself from hyperbole about political or constitutional crisis, then all the better.

We have argued for greater clarity about the government formation process, but there are some established principles. So long as it is unclear who is to be Prime Minister, the existing government remains in office, subject to similar constraints as in the pre-election ‘purdah’ period. It is the duty of an outgoing prime minister to hold on until unequivocal advice can be given to the Queen about who should be the next guest for tea at the palace.

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We need clearer reporting on the 2015 election

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The 2015 election is one of the most unpredictable in decades. But last Monday’s dissolution of parliament was the most predictable event of the year and still large parts of the media got it wrong. This does not bode well for how the post-election period will be reported, writes Akash Paun.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), passed in 2011 and amended in 2013, Parliament was automatically dissolved last Monday, 25 working days before the first Thursday in May, when the country goes to the polls. Nonetheless, several major news outlets managed to confuse their readers and viewers by reporting that David Cameron had to request a dissolution from the Queen (as was the case before the FTPA was passed).

There are more important parts of our constitution than the precise mechanism used to dissolve parliament. But this is just one of a number of misconceptions likely to confuse voters in the run-up to and days following the election, particularly if there is another hung parliament. Even the Government’s Cabinet Manual, created expressly to clear up confusion about such matters, has not been kept up to date and incorrectly states that the election occurs 17 (rather than 25) days after dissolution (at page 96).

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What would a minority government be like?

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As the election approaches, Peter Riddell explores the very real prospect of a minority government and considers the challenges which would be likely to arise from such a scenario.

Paul Goodman was right to argue on Conservative Home in November 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 five 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.

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