The polls all appear to be coalescing around the likelihood of a hung parliament, and before today’s intervention by Mrs Duffy from Rochdale much of the media coverage of the election has settled into processology around whether Nick loves Gordon more than he loves Dave. But there has been little focus on what will actually happen to bring about the formation of a new government should no party secure an overall majority.
Britain is not a stranger to hung parliaments, as the below chart compiled by Prof Robert Hazell of the Institute for Government shows. But how would it work? Should we all wake up on 7 May and no party has reached an overall majority, the crucial thing to know is that, in the short term, the incumbent PM and Ministers stay on while a new agreement on a government is being formed. So, should a hung parliament situation arise, Gordon and his team (even those who have lost their own seats) will carry on until a new agreement is reached, although by convention they will try to avoid taking any big decisions.
Prof Hazell, Britain’s leading expert on hung parliaments, told Election Insider this week that he expects the process of forming the next government to take around 10 days to two weeks, should no party have an overall majority. That will take some getting used to.
So, on 7 May, the three main parties will begin talking to each other, facilitated by the civil service, to try to reach an agreement. This agreement could take many different forms, each predicated on the need to form a government which has the confidence of the House of Commons. The two most likely outcomes of a hung parliament are a formal coalition or a minority Government.
Given the difficulties of reaching agreement with the Lib Dems on a number of key issues, it is likely that the Conservatives’ ideal approach, should they have the most seats in a hung parliament, would be to form a minority administration. This would require building coalitions of support for each piece of legislation they wish to pass, and means Parliamentary consensus on a case-by-case basis would be crucial. This minority government system has surprised many by working well in Scotland in recent years.
Alternately, either the Tories or Labour could enter into a formal coalition with the Lib Dems. This becomes more likely when (as the current polls are projecting) both of the main parties are way off the total number of seats required to form a majority. For example, should Labour and the Tories have around 260 seats each, and the Lib Dems around 100, a coalition may be necessary to command any real confidence.
The Lib Dems’ price for entering such a coalition will be steep – probably 6 or 7 cabinet posts, electoral reform and a number of other eyewatering (and potentially deal-breaking) demands. (The Lib Dems also have a convoluted process for agreeing to be part of a coalition, which may or may not get jettisoned – Election Insider will be explaining this over the next few days).
Once a coalition (or minority government) has been agreed which is deemed by the major players to have the most likelihood of commanding the confidence of the House, the Queen will invite the relevant party leader to form the government.
A common misconception is that hung parliaments are swiftly followed by a second general election. This may not necessarily be the case, as no party will want to be held responsible for bringing down the government unnecessarily, dragging the country to the polls again after a few months. More prosaically but no less important, the parties may not have the war chests to be able to afford a second election for a little while.
Other factors could impact on the formation of the new government – jittery markets, a feral media, or the acts of individual politicians during the negotiation period. What is likely, however, is that should no party have an overall majority on the morning of 7 May, we’re going to have to get used to waiting a while for our new Government. Let the nail biting commence.