UK Politics

Reality Check: What if a minority government is the only answer?

Westminster at dawn

It's Friday, 8 May, all the votes are counted and every constituency declared.

The people have spoken, and delivered a resounding "not sure".

Unlike last time round, the policies, personalities and Parliamentary arithmetic do not allow for formation of a coalition government. Minority government could be the only answer.

Since the end of the Second World War when his late Majesty King George VI asked Clem Attlee to form a government, there have been 18 general elections.

Sixteen of these have produced a majority one party government.

This tendency for a clear result has us rushing for the constitutional rule book when things are less than clear.

Tiny majority

In fact, despite Britain's unwritten constitution, the mechanics for forming a minority government are clear and a minority government is not without precedent, especially for voters in Scotland and Wales.

Post-war Britain has seen three minority governments.

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After the inconclusive election of February 1974, Harold Wilson formed a minority Labour government.

He had no intention, however, of making this a long term arrangement and in October of the same year, called a second election; where Labour secured a Commons majority of just three seats.

BBC News Timeliner: The '74 elections

The 'indecisive election' of February 1974 led to a minority Labour government under Harold Wilson and another general election in October.

Watch: BBC News Timeliner - February 1974

Watch: BBC News Timeliner - October 1974

This tiny majority eventually led to Britain's second minority government.

A by-election defeat and defections saw Labour lose its majority on the day Jim Callaghan took over as prime minister in April 1976.

A short-lived deal with the Liberals came and went and in 1979, the government fell when Margaret Thatcher (supported by the SNP) tabled and won a "No Confidence" vote - ushering in 18 years of Conservative rule.

This government, towards its end, would see Britain's third minority administration.

Halcyon days

In 1992 John Major secured a majority of 21 seats, but defections and by-election defeats saw the government enter minority status by November 1996.

At Westminster, minority governments don't appear to have worked that well.

Wilson tried it for eight months and went for a majority as soon as he could.

The tail-end of the Callaghan and Major governments, cannot, even in the most generous of reviews, be regarded as halcyon days of good governance.

However, the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales have both seen stable, full-term minority governments.

Looking at Scotland, the SNP formed a minority government after the 2007 elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Being in a minority, it wasn't able to get everything it wanted onto the Statute Book.

'Mother of Parliaments'

Bills to enable a referendum on independence and to introduce a local income tax, were axed when it became clear that they had insufficient parliamentary support. Plans for a minimum price per unit of alcohol were also dropped.

However, it went the full term, laws were enacted and all its budgets were passed with the support of the Scottish Conservatives. Alex Salmond went on to take majority control in 2011 and the party's continued electoral success could be the talk of this election.

Nor are stable and effective minority governments unknown in Commonwealth countries that can trace their parliamentary and governance systems back to "the Mother of Parliaments" in Westminster.

If we take the ability to pass legislation as one sign of success, then Julia Gillard's minority government from 2010-2013 passed the most Acts per days in office than any other Australian government.

More than even than her Labor predecessor Bob Hawke who won comfortable majorities at three elections. In New Zealand, a minority government was elected in 2008, winning re-election in 2011 and 2014.

One thing is clear. The politicians must sort it out themselves.

The Cabinet Manual, a sort of constitutional handbook, says that "The Sovereign would not expect to become involved in any negotiations".

Though the Queen's Government must go on, Her Majesty will remain in Windsor, till it becomes clear who she should summon.

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