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What is minority government?

Louise Wilson

The UK is set to have a minority government for only the fourth time in the post-war period. This form of government comes into being when no party has more the 326 MPs and when no parties are willing to come together to create a coalition.

Those of us in Scotland are of course no stranger to minority government – the SNP led one between 2007-11 and is leading one again now. The key difference is that the electoral system used for Holyrood is designed to avoid giving one party overall control while the one used for Westminster is not. The electorate was not listening to that unwritten rule when heading to the polling booths last week!

So how does minority government work in practice? It usually means lots of negotiation to get each piece of legislation passed, which tends to increase scrutiny as ministers have to be much more transparent. It differs from a coalition in that the governing party will work with any party that is willing on each individual policy, rather than having to work with the same party throughout the parliamentary session. But of course, collaboration between some parties is more likely than others.

It is important to note though that many countries throughout the world rely on minority or coalition governments. All the talk of requiring a huge majority to be “strong and stable” will feel quite alien to non-UK citizens. Indeed, many advocates of proportional representation argue that as policy and legislation receives more scrutiny, it ends up resulting in better outcomes (in terms of less being repealed/reversed). Downsides include the time it takes to compromise, the potential for broken manifesto promises and the perception of instability.

Turning back to the election outcome, the Conservatives and DUP have this week been discussing what is known as a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement. Essentially, this creates a framework that the two parties will work within to pass laws, with a primary focus on the content of the Queen’s Speech. It is much less formal than a coalition by creating some wrangling room over the specific details later on. This could result in the Queen’s Speech passing next Wednesday but the DUP removing its support at a later date due to disagreement over the finer points.

Further difficulty for the UK Government will arise when English Votes for English Laws comes into play. This parliamentary procedure, introduced only in the last short session, prevents MPs from the devolved nations from voting on legislation that is deemed will impact voters in England. While the Conservatives have a majority in England, the knock-on impact on the Barnett formula of these votes could place tension on the relationship with the DUP.

Another concern is the limited timescale there is for the adoption of EU law. Should the Great Repeal Bill go ahead, the Government has until March 2019 for it to pass through parliament. A tight, hard deadline, and compromise and collaboration do not make for a good marriage.

Many pundits are predicting another snap election could take place this year or next. Given the lack of opposition MPs enamoured with the Conservatives (compared to Labour, which the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens have said they would be willing to back), it seems the party has its work cut out in managing to hold onto to its position in government. But then, an election won’t necessarily put any party closer to a majority either…

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