Outcome of a hung parliament could be fraught

by Nick Kent | 06.06.2017

Some opinion polls suggest that the general election might leave no party with an overall majority in the House of Commons.  A hung parliament could trigger constitutional chaos, with resulting market turbulence.  That didn’t happen in 2010.  But this year a hung parliament could be especially fraught because the start of negotiations with the EU and the Queen’s Speech, which sets out the new government’s legislative programme, are due on the same day, June 19. This 10-day interval after the election allows little time for political horse-trading.

The UK, almost uniquely in the Western world, has no written constitution and the picture has been complicated by the passage of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, which determines when a general election can be held and, for the first time, places on the statute book rules about the circumstances in which a government must resign.  

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Should there be a hung parliament, here are the main possible scenarios.

Scenario one:  What if the Conservatives are the largest party but without an overall majority?

May, as the incumbent prime minister, would remain in office, observing the constitutional convention that “the Queen’s government must be carried on”.  No doubt there would be rapid talks between the parties. But the Cabinet Manual suggests that May would be entitled to wait to see if the new House of Commons was prepared to support her, unless it was obvious that it would not do so and there was a clear alternative government.  If the Conservatives only needed a few votes to close the gap, and could reach an accommodation with (say) the Northern Ireland Unionist parties, May could tell the Queen she is able to form an administration and stay in office. The Queen’s Speech and the start of the Brexit negotiations would go ahead as planned.

In the event of May being unable to form a new administration the leader of the second largest party, presumably Labour, would be invited to try.  Corbyn then becomes prime minister.

Scenario two: What if Labour has the largest number of seats?

If Labour has the largest number of seats, Corbyn can try to form a government.  It would be May’s duty as prime minister to resign and recommend to the Queen that she invite Corbyn to form an administration if she thought that he could do that.  But as with the Tories trying to stay in office, Labour would need assurances from the other parties holding the balance of seats that they would not oppose a Labour administration.  The SNP has said that it would not join a coalition with Labour but would offer it support on an issue-by-issue basis.  The Queen’s Speech, and the start of the Brexit negotiations, might need to be postponed to allow more time for inter-party talks.

A twist on this scenario is that May could stay in office if she believed that Corbyn could not assemble a coalition against her, even though the Conservatives had not reached an accommodation with other parties. May would have to resign if Corbyn eventually could cobble an administration together.  This could also lead to delays in the Queen’s Speech and the start of the Brexit talks.

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    Scenario three.  What if no party could form a new government?  

    There are two possibilities. First, May’s government would stay in office and the Queen’s Speech and Brexit talks would probably go ahead as scheduled. But the government would only last until it lost a motion of no confidence under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011.  If that happened, there would be period of 14 days for a new government to emerge and be endorsed by the House.  If there was still no government, there would automatically be a general election, on a date chosen by May.  Second,  the House could at any point pass a resolution under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 saying that “there shall be an early general election” by a two-thirds majority (of all seats, not just MPs voting).  Again, May would choose the date of the election.

    The same process would apply to Corbyn should he have been asked to form an administration. Like May, he would be prime minister and could choose the date of the election if he failed to form an administration or his government collapsed.

    The constraints on setting a date for an election are mostly practical: ensuring that public services have enough funds to continue, for example. Although the prime minister has the final say, in the circumstances set out here he or she would be likely to choose a date after talks with other parties. No election has been held in July or August in living memory, so the likelihood is that September is the earliest month for another election.

    In the absence of a new government, or if one collapses quickly, and faced with another election, the UK’s ability to pursue the Brexit talks would be called into question.

    Edited by Michael Prest

    One Response to “Outcome of a hung parliament could be fraught”

    • Whatever the outcome we were done for after 23 June last.
      The cliff edge gets ever nearer and at the bottom are the rocks waiting for us as we catapult to disaster, the innocent as well as the guilty who set us on this course.