Scotland, Wales and Ireland point to how governments should be formed in hung parliaments

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Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones have this week been re-elected as First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, whilst two week ago Enda Kenny was re-elected as Irish Taoiseach. In each case the newly elected parliament elected the head of the new government. In a new report Petra Schleiter, Valerie Belu and Robert Hazell argue that a similar procedure should be adopted at Westminster, where currently the Queen decides who should be Prime Minister before parliament meets. Robert Hazell explains why.

This week has seen the re-election of Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones as First Ministers in Scotland and in Wales, following the devolved elections on 5 May. Two weeks ago we witnessed the re-election of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach in Ireland, ten weeks after the Irish election on 26 February. What these three countries have in common is not just that the same leader has been re-elected, but that in their recent elections Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland all saw the return of a hung parliament in which no party gained an overall majority. In these circumstances it does not fall to the Queen to decide who shall be First Minister, or in Ireland to the President; under their constitutions it falls to the newly elected parliament, whose first business (after election of a presiding officer) is to elect the head of the new government.  That is what happened in Ireland on 6 May, in Scotland on 17 May and in Wales on 18 May.

In a report published this week, which I have written with Professor Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu of Oxford University, we suggest that is what should also happen in future at Westminster. Instead of the Queen having to decide who should be Prime Minister before parliament meets, the first business of a newly elected House of Commons should be to select the Prime Minister, who would then be formally appointed by the Queen.

This may seem unnecessary after elections when a single party wins an overall majority, and it is obvious who is going to be Prime Minister: as happened in the UK in 2015. In those cases the election of the leader of the majority party to head the new government would be a formality.  The value of asking the House of Commons to choose the Prime Minister is when it is not obvious who can command confidence in the newly elected parliament. That is always going to be the case in a hung parliament, especially if it is closely hung. We risk forgetting how narrowly we escaped from having such a parliament after the 2015 general election. In the weeks before the election the polls suggested a very close result, with some forecasting a dead heat between the two major parties. Although the Cabinet Manual says it is for the political parties to work out who can command confidence in the new parliament, there is a risk of confusion and uncertainty if there is a standoff, with both main parties claiming to be able to form a government. The only reliable way to determine who can command confidence in such a situation is a nomination vote in the House of Commons. That would be a quicker and cleaner solution than the traditional vote on the Queen’s Speech as the first test of confidence in a new government.

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May 2015: Who forms the UK government in the event of a hung parliament?

Petra Schleiter (2)

The polls continue to predict a hung parliament after the May 2015 election in which more than one potential government could be viable. In this context, Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu ask how government formation negotiations will proceed and which actors will have a privileged role in the bargaining process?

When several alternative governments are viable, negotiations are in practice guided by constitutional principles that determine which actors are asked to form the government and in what order. These principles are referred to as recognition rules in the field of comparative politics and they are often central in narrowing a range of potential government formation options decisively.

In the UK, the prime minister designate is appointed by the sovereign and asked to form a government. The monarch is expected to discharge this role in government formation without becoming involved in any negotiations. This is not difficult when a single party commands an outright legislative majority so that the prime minister designate is directly identified by the election result. However, in hung parliaments, the task of naming an appropriate government formateur often involves political choices. Moreover, who is selected as the formateur can have important consequences for the nature of the government that forms. In the past, the UK has applied a range of different principles to select formateurs. The problem is that these principles are potentially contradictory. The need to resolve the contradictions is becoming increasingly pressing in the context of long-term changes in electoral behaviour, which make it unlikely that the hung parliament of 2010 will remain an isolated outcome.

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