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3 reasons hung parliament holds more opportunity than risk

by Hugo Dixon | 31.05.2017

Theresa May will try to scare the British people with the thought that a hung parliament will cause chaos for our Brexit talks. But such a scenario actually offers hope. There’ll be a slim chance of staying in the EU, less risk of crashing out with no deal and a bigger possibility of securing a better deal.

It’s no longer fanciful to imagine that the Tories will fail to secure a majority on June 8. Today’s shock YouGov poll predicts that the Conservatives will be reduced to 310 MPs, less than the 326 they need for overall control. What’s more, May’s inept campaigning may continue to lose her support in the final week before the election. Her refusal to debate Jeremy Corbyn and other party leaders this evening is just the latest example of this: it smacks of cowardice and disdain for democracy.

How should you vote?

Of course, a hung parliament carries risks. The main one is that nobody is able to form a government and there has to be a further election in the autumn – which produces another stalemate. In the meantime, the two-year Article 50 clock keeps ticking and there’s even less time to negotiate a decent divorce deal before we quit the EU in March 2019.

That said, the loss of a few months of talks over the summer isn’t so damaging. Some people will anyway be on holiday; and the really serious negotiations may anyway have to wait until after Germany’s general election in September.

Set against this risk, a hung parliament holds several opportunities.

Corbyn in Downing St?

For a start, Corbyn may be able to form a stable government to handle the Brexit talks – either a formal coalition or a minority administration with the informal support of the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats. Labour’s Brexit policy isn’t great; but it is better than the Tories’ and Corbyn is more likely to seek common ground with our EU partners than threaten them.

The other parties would, of course, want something in return. The SNP, which would be the next largest party, might want a commitment to hold another referendum on Scottish independence. Corbyn shouldn’t agree that. Instead, he should offer a nationwide referendum on the final Brexit deal to confirm that the voters really want to quit the EU once they know the terms.

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Nicola Sturgeon might find it hard to reject such an offer given that her rationale for reopening the independence issue is that Scotland is being dragged out of the EU against its will. Corbyn could say that it would be premature to reopen the Scottish question until the European issue was finally settled one way or another.

Such a proposal might also tempt the Lib Dems – as their central policy is to hold a referendum on the Brexit terms – although Tim Farron would have to eat his pledge not to engage in any electoral pacts.

Bye-bye May?

Another possibility is that the Tories cobble together a government – perhaps with support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which has 8 MPs. It, too, would exact a price. But that wouldn’t necessarily be bad – especially if it secured a cast-iron promise that Brexit wouldn’t lead to border controls with the Republic of Ireland.

Meanwhile, a Tory minority government wouldn’t have enough power to carry out May’s threat to drive us out of the EU without a deal, which would lead to the most chaotic Brexit. What’s more, the prime minister herself might be kicked out by her backbenchers. After all, she would have been humiliated. Her replacement might be somebody less likely to antagonise our partners such as the home secretary Amber Rudd – although it might equally be Boris Johnson, who would be a red rag to the European bull.

The other possibility, of course, is that neither party can form a government and there has to be a second election. But this wouldn’t necessarily be a repeat of the current contest. After all, the Tories might have a different leader; ditto for the Lib Dems. The parties’ policies on Brexit – especially on how much parliament and the people should be involved in approving the final terms – might change. And even if a second election led to another hung parliament, the subsequent deal-making might be easier.

There are obviously lots of imponderables in these scenarios. Still, if thinking about a hung parliament offends May’s desire for order and control, why did she break her word and call an election in the first place?