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Policy

A Hung Parliament

Every poll you look at, if you take notice of such things, say a hung parliament is assured when the political dust settles in the small dark hours of Friday morning

The coalition governing the UK for the last five years was the result of the Conservative Party gaining the largest number of MPs at the 2010 general election – but finding itself short of the 326 required for a majority in the House of Commons. After 5 days of political wrangling and backroom deals, a (at the time surprising) coalition of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats formed on the 12th May as they were the only two-party combination able to command a majority.

However, unlike the confusing May days of 2010, there is less clarity and general acceptance of another Con/Lib Coalition Government being formed. And, added to this heady mix, is that as we approach the first general election since the introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), two things are absolutely clear: the Act significantly changes the rules of politics, and no one is exactly sure how.

Does there have to be a coalition?

No, not at all, a coalition is not the only option in a hung parliament. Under the FTPA a Government only has to show that it can “command the confidence of the House of Commons“.

Theoretically, this means being able to gather enough votes to defeat any vote of no confidence called by the opposition. In this scenario, one party could decide to form a minority government, filling all the ministerial roles with its own MPs but relying on votes from outside the party to pass any bills. How these votes are secured is up to the political parties. There are no rules on how they must draw up any agreement.

However, those planning for post-election negotiations in a hung parliament will have to think hard about the FTPA’s significance. For example, minority government has become riskier – if a government falls after a year or so, it might face not a new election, but handing power to its main rivals for the remainder of the Parliament.

What is “confidence and supply”?

In the run-up to the election, several party leaders have ruled out joining a coalition and talked instead of having a looser agreement. This is sometimes known as a “confidence and supply” arrangement.

“Confidence” refers to the smaller party promising to support the government in any vote of no confidence called by other parties, while “supply” means that the party will help the government to pass its budget.

In practice, this means a minority government doesn’t have to constantly worry whether it is about to be voted out of office. In return it will need to co-operate with other parties in drafting every bill that it wants to put before Parliament.

Before and during the new Parliament, other parties may decide to join discussions with the present government, or the party with the most MPs, or the party with which they have the most policies in common.

Talks on forming a government may start between opposition parties even though the Prime Minister remains in power, which was the situation facing Gordon Brown in 2010.

Who gets first chance to form a government?

The Prime Minister, David Cameron MP, will remain in office until he informs the Queen they are resigning, and is only “expected” to resign once it becomes clear that they cannot command a majority of seats or confidence in the house. So, in effect, David Cameron is entitled to stay in power if he believes he can build a working majority, in whatever form that takes. He then has just under 14 days to form a government before the start of the new Parliament.

Should this happen, the opposition could then test the strength of his majority with a vote of no confidence. If a government loses that confidence vote, we then hit a big ambiguity at the heart of the legislation. Previously, a Prime Minister losing a vote of confidence would either resign immediately, handing power to a successor; or stay in as a sort of caretaker government while a second election was held. However, the 14-day clock only stops when a government is approved by the House – and this requires any new government to already be in place: the wording in the FTPA specifically says that the motion must be “confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”. So must the outgoing Prime Minister immediately resign and pass the reins to the leader of the Opposition, even if their chances of assembling a parliamentary majority look slender? Or should they hang on and await the outcome of negotiations amongst other party leaders, despite having lost a vote of confidence?

These are big questions, that currently most political crystal ball soothsayers are seemingly none the wiser on.

How long do they have?

There are 12 days between polling day and the first meeting of Parliament, the exact date of which is the 18th May, set by Royal proclamation.

Will there be a Government by then? Hopefully, but your guess is as good as mine.

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