June 9, 2017

Hung Parliament: Minority Government, Coalition, or Confidence & Supply

By Aldric

Results of the UK Elections are coming in as I write this entry. Already many are calling on the departure of Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury, and Minister for the Civil Service.

Terms that are entering the lexicon of observers and enthusiasts alike include hung parliament and minority government. Of course, there will be those who – like Jeremy Corbyn – are calling for the resignation of Theresa May.

First, let us understand how the Westminster model of government works. While it is a bicameral legislature, composed of the Crown, the House of Lords (‘Lords’), and the House of Commons (‘Commons’), the composition in the Commons determines which group forms Her Majesty’s Government led by the primus inter pares styled as the British Prime Minister.

How did this happen? Examination of British [political] history since the 1500s will reveal the dynamics and evolution. From an absolute monarch to one that is assisted by the Privy Council, eventually by Parliament, and now the Cabinet and the Civil Service.

Coming back to the Westminster Model, when Theresa May called for an early election under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, effectively the Commons was dissolved. The May Ministry moved from Government to caretaker Government pending the outcome of the Commons election.

The Crown – like Malaysia and its State Rulers – will invite the person who commands the majority support in the Commons to form government. When this convention developed, British politics was not as organised as it is today, i.e. party lines. Back then, it was a murky affair.

In fact, the First Lord of the Treasury could come from either the Lords or Commons! This included the Earl of Wilmington (1742), the Duke of Newcastle (1754), his successor the Duke of Devonshire (1756) and so on.

Before I go astray, let me return to ‘hung parliament’. Hung parliament describes a state where no party or faction controls a majority of the seats of the effective House, i.e. the Commons. In the case of the Commons, there are 650 seats up for grabs. When no political party is able to secure at least 326 seats, a state of hung parliament exists. The political composition of the 800-member Lords is immaterial.


Any member of the Lords or Commons may introduce a Bill, i.e. propose a draft Law. But Money Law, i.e. the Budget & Supply Bills, must be introduced in the Commons. A supply bill passed by the Commons may be rejected by the Lords, but the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 assert the dominance of the Commons over the Lords. And since money makes the world go round – or government to function – he or she who controls the purse controls the State. Thus, even if the 700 of the 800 Lords identify as a Conservative/Tory, the numbers are immaterial.
The theory behind this convention or principle is that when a government is led by one who lacks the support of the Commons, it cannot govern effectively. Neither budgets nor laws may be passed.

But what if there is no majority in the Commons? What happens to the political Government? Who has claim to the Office of the First Lord of the Treasury?

Here is where many behind-the-scenes drama unfolds. The leaders of the Tories and the Labour (May and Corbyn respectively) may start negotiations with the various parties.

First option, as seen as recently as 2010, the Tories may form a coalition government with another party. Forming a coalition means compromise to the manifesto and party’s ideology. We saw this in the Tory-Whig (yes, I still refer to the Liberal Democrats as Whigs) Coalition Government. In the first Cameron Ministry, the Deputy Prime Minister was the leader of a different party (i.e. the Whigs).

Second option, when a coalition is out of the question, the Tories – or Labour – may negotiate for a Confidence and Supply Agreement with the other parties. Labour’s Callaghan Ministry (1977-1979) struct the agreement with the Whigs. Under the agreement, the smaller party will vote in favour of the larger party on two fundamental measures in the Commons: (1) Votes of Confidence (VoC)/Votes of No Confidence (VoNC) and (2) Money Bill or the Budget. Unlike the first option, members of the smaller party do not join the larger party in government.
Third option, the First Lord of the Treasury continues to hold office despite not having at least 326 seats. The ministry will be known as a ‘minority government’.

So one term refers to the executive branch of government while the other refers to the legislative branch.

Does this mean that Theresa May’s position is secured? Hardly. While we were examining the framework set by the United Kingdom’s unwritten constitution, we did not take into account the possibility of Tory MPs in challenging her leadership. If her Cabinet colleagues decide to challenge her, as last seen in the 90s, the Tories will likely become the Opposition for the next decade or so. I speculate that May wants to be seen like the late Baroness Thatcher of Kestevan. Frankly, she is no Thatcher. This is party politics – away from the halls of Westminster and decided, instead, by the whispers of the corridors in 4 Matthew Parker Street or Labour Central.