What actually is a minority government?

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Moya Crockett
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In what has proved to be a shock result to a shock general election, the Conservative Party has failed to achieve a majority at the polls, resulting in a hung parliament.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s party held a majority before she called the snap election in April. However, that has now been wiped out.

There are 650 constituencies in the UK, and a party must secure at least 326 MPs to form a majority government. Given that the Conservatives had a majority of 331 MPs before May called the election (which she said was essential to give her the “mandate” she needed to negotiate Brexit), it appears that the Prime Minister believed her party would win far more than 326 MPs on Election Day.

But as the most recent polls stand, the Tories have won only 318 seats (48.9% of the vote) – not enough for an outright win.

Labour currently has 261 MPs (40.1%), the Scottish National Party (SNP) have 35 (5.3%) and the Liberal Democrats have 12 (1.8%).

So what happens next?

If a party does not achieve the magic number of 326 MPs, there are three options available to them: form a coalition, form a minority government, or re-do the election entirely in the hope of a more decisive outcome.

There were few routes open to the Conservatives with regard to forming a coalition. Smaller left-wing parties such as the SNP and the Green Party were out of the question. The Liberal Democrats, of course, teamed up with the Tories in 2010 – but this time around Tim Farron’s party insisted they wouldn’t join any kind of coalition.

As a result, the Prime Minister was forced to try to pull together a minority government.

The Guardian reports that Theresa May has struck a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, and will visit the Queen at around 12.30pm to confirm that a deal is in place.

What is a minority government?

A minority government is a cabinet formed where a political party (or coalition) does not have a majority of overall seats in Parliament.

Under this kind of government, laws can only be passed if the party in office can garner support from MPs from other parties.

This means that MPs from opposing parties have the power to vote against legislation – or can even bring down the government with a vote of no confidence.

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Who are the Democratic Unionist Party?

In reality, the right-wing DUP were the only party that made sense as natural ally of the Conservatives in a minority government.

The anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ rights party won 10 seats in the general election in Northern Ireland, and said relatively early on that they would be willing to negotiate with Theresa May to help her form a government.

Speaking on Friday, a DUP source said: “We want there to be a government. We have worked well with May. The alternative is intolerable. For as long as Corbyn leads Labour, we will ensure there’s a Tory PM.”

However, the DUP differ from the Conservatives on some very significant issues – not least Brexit. Arlene Foster, the leader of the party, has spoken out against a “hard Brexit” and is keen to avoid a ‘hard border’ with the Republic of Ireland.

The Telegraph reports that the DUP could also force the Tories to abandon two of their most controversial manifesto pledges: scrapping the ‘triple lock’ rise in the state pension and means testing winter fuel payments.

Their hard-line attitudes toward gay marriage and women’s reproductive rights are also like to spark criticism from more moderate Conservative voters.

What’s so wrong with a minority government?

Well, nothing in theory. However, history tells us that they rarely last – in part because it can be extremely difficult to run an efficient government that’s reliant on support from other parties. As a result, minority government leaders often end up calling another general election to try and clinch themselves a majority again.

This happened in 1974, when Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson helmed a minority government for just seven months before calling another election. Another Labour PM, James Callaghan, ran a minority government for eight months between 1978 and 1979 before he was forced (by a vote of no confidence) to do the same thing.

The last party to run a minority government in the UK was the Conservatives under John Major, for five months between December 1996 and the May 1997 general election.

Of these minority PMs, only Wilson was able to secure a majority by calling another general election – and even then only by a tiny majority of three MPs. Callaghan and Major were defeated in landslides, by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair respectively.

So if we do get a minority government, we could be heading to the polls again sooner than expected.

This article has been updated. Images: Rex Features