Minority report: Akash Paun offers some crumbs of comfort on Westminster’s new balance of power
Minority governments evoke fear of chaos, but there may be an upside to the uncertainty, says IfG’s constitutional change expert
Theresa May greets Arlene Foster and DUP colleagues in Downing Street Credit: PA
They say a change is as good as a rest. But it is doubtful that many in Whitehall will be anticipating a period of relaxation after the formation of a minority government last month. Governing without a majority evokes fear and folk memory of chaos and uncertainty. The reality may be less dramatic. Minority governments are more short-lived on average, but it is not inevitable that they collapse in disarray. There are plenty of examples of successful minority governments, but to emulate them the government may well need to change the way it operates.
In Scotland in 2007, the SNP formed a minority government in an even weaker position than Theresa May today. Alex Salmond’s party held just 47 of 129 seats. The initial consensus was that the government would be lucky to last six months, but it served a full four-year term before winning an outright majority.
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Minority governments are naturally prone to losing more votes in parliament, but this does not always matter. The Wilson and Callaghan minority governments in the 1970s lost around 60 votes before the narrowly carried no confidence motion of March 1979 brought the show to a close.
With Democratic Unionist Party backing, set out in a published “confidence and supply agreement”, the government should be secure for at least two years on confidence motions, both explicit ones and matters taken as such by convention, namely votes on supply, budgets and the Queen’s Speech. Perhaps crucially, the DUP has also agreed to back government legislation relating to Brexit and national security.
While the DUP has secured a set of spending commitments in exchange for their support, it seems unlikely that this will be all the party demands. There are no stated conditions for DUP support on Brexit or fiscal policy, but the party will surely expect to be closely consulted through the twists and turns of the Brexit process and before future fiscal events.
The position of minority governments is strengthened to the extent that other parties are disunited
International experience shows that smaller parties often end up feeling sidelined after the excitement of the initial deal. This can weaken their commitment to continued cooperation. The confidence and supply agreement includes a plan to create a new co-ordination committee between the government and DUP. Whatever form this ends up taking, getting the governance side of the deal right will be important
A key point about life without a majority is that this only matters in parliament itself. Where possible, it is sensible for a minority government to focus on non-legislative routes to achieving policy objectives. That may naturally mean a shift from headline reforms towards continuous improvement using existing powers and budgets. The Salmond administration in Edinburgh, for instance, reorganised government around its cross-cutting “Scotland Performs” strategic outcomes framework, which has lasted a decade and counting.
The position of minority governments is also strengthened to the extent that other parties are disunited. The absence of a government majority does not imply the existence of an opposition majority. Minority governments can therefore play divide and rule, trading small but politically-significant concessions at the margins while advancing the core of their agenda. A series of minority governments in New Zealand have struck confidence and supply agreements with several smaller parties at once, which has ensured they have a supportive majority on key votes in exchange for relatively minor concessions.
But a question for the new British government is whether it has any potential allies beyond the DUP. If it does not, the DUP will have significant leverage to demand further concessions as time goes on. Even with DUP support, the prime minister has a tiny majority, so small rebellions on the backbenches will leave the government relying on the other parties failing to work together.
The problems if opposition parties do work together may be as much about the timetable as the substance of the government’s plans: backbench and opposition critics are often more willing to vote down “programme motions” that curtail time for debate, rather than to oppose legislation outright. But with the sand flowing fast through the two-year Article 50 hourglass, the whips will fear delay as much as defeat.
Westminster is not accustomed to cross-party working. But, perhaps ironically, the strength and stability of the new government may rest upon its ability to work with the opposition. Now that kind of change might indeed be as good as a rest.
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