What is a Hung Parliament?

Caoimhe Gordon investigates the aftermath of the British election, which saw no party win a majority.

The aftermath of the British snap election last week brought with it a plethora of memes, each with varying ranges of hilarity, an estimated youth turnout of 69% and of course, a somewhat confounding result that can be characterised by the term “hung parliament.” This term was for many as unclear as the reasoning behind Theresa May’s frolicking through the wheat fields in her youth. 

A hung parliament is the phrase that describes the occurrence where no party has won enough seats in a general election to have a majority in the House of Commons. The House of Commons, the lower house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, consists of 650 Members of Parliament.

Unlike Ireland, where the Proportional Representation method is utilized in general elections, these MPs are chosen using the often debated First Past the Post system. A party needs to achieve 326 seats to achieve a majority and form a government. This however did not transpire for the Conservative government in this endeavour as they won 317 seats, meaning that the British public woke to a miasma of confusion and political turmoil on the 9th of June.

In the case that the verdict is indeed a hung Parliament, there are several varying scenarios that can be employed. The Prime Minister lingers in office and continues to reside in 10 Downing Street during this uncertain time. The previous government might attempt to retain their position while negotiating with another party in order to form a parliament. Equally they may decide to persevere and rule with a minority.

However, according to the Cabinet Manual, if the “incumbent” government is unable to form a coalition, admits defeat and resigns, then the leader of the largest opposition party may be invited to form a government. This occurs if it is clear that the incumbent Prime Minister and their government cannot command enough votes of confidence after the Queen’s Speech within the House of Commons, rendering them obsolete. This speech is read out by the Queen but clarifies the plans of the parliament during their reign. The same two options then are offered to the opposition leader: form a coalition or act as a minority government.

Although Labour, jubilant with their 9.5% increase in its vote share, seemed to confirm they were willing to ally themselves with smaller parties to form a government, this was not permitted to occur by the Conservatives determined not to lose their position in government. In this instance, the Conservatives opted for a minority government, a move that would have been considered laughable when the party was leading the polls at the beginning of the campaign. However, following this result of an election shrouded in controversy in a nation shook after a series of belligerent terror attacks, it became apparently clear that it was a calamitous campaign for May, earning her the epithet “Maybot.”

Conservative talks with DUP

The Conservatives entered talks with the Northern Irish political party, the Democratic Unionist Party. Known for their negative stance on both abortion and same sex marriage, this right wing party had won 10 seats in the House of Commons. With an agreement in place, May then visited Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace to consolidate the formation of the minority government, a necessity in the monarchy system. With the Queen’s blessing, the government thus became official. May then made a marked return to the iconic door of 10 Downing Street to declare “let’s get back to work” despite former colleagues publicly vilifying her campaign.

However, this is not the first instance of a resulting hung parliament in the British parliament. A stable coalition also occurred after a similar result of an election in 2010 between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats after five days of talks, a length that was criticized at the time for being too short. Hung parliaments were also a constant occurrence during the twentieth century with many parties unable to form a coalition. Other countries where hung parliaments are a probable happening include Canada (although the term hung parliament is not used), Australia, India and New Zealand before the introduction of PR in 1993.

Hung parliaments then are usually a regular occurrence in a nation where the government is usually composed of one of two main parties, as can be witnessed in the history of the UK. The phrase hung parliament however only came into popular use during the 1970s in the Guardian newspaper by Simon Hoggart. Some find the idea of a hung parliament in such countries as ideal as it contains the possibility of absolute power. Within Ireland and other countries that opt for a proportional representation, it is a seldom occurrence that one party will be able to win a majority of seats immediately and coalitions are common. Therefore a hung parliament is indeed often expected after elections in such countries that the term is rarely used.

Matt Keeley is a student at the University of York and concludes that the result must be seen as a positive: “It has shown for a second time in a year that you can’t make any assumptions about the way that people in the UK think and it is proof that we won’t give into bullying by politicians who think they are above us.”

Matt also reflects upon the impact that this hung parliament result will have upon Brexit negotiations. He revels in the fact that May no longer has a majority to back her stance for a hard Brexit: “It couldn’t be better because now the UK is weak and the EU holds all the cards. Hopefully we will have a soft Brexit.”

Matt also has hope for the future for his nation after this tumultuous political time: “Even though Labour aren’t perfect, I am happy that they got a lot of backing from young people because we are the future [of the UK[ and politicians just don’t know how to engage with us, apart from the way Jeremy Corbyn tried to.”

Now the hung parliament has ultimately led to a minority government, many remain unsure about the future. Another student from England informed me of another possible aftermath of the election in relation to the upper house of government in the UK, the House of Lords. The Salisbury Convention, created by the Conservative leader in the House of Lords, Lord Salisbury, states that the House of Lords will not oppose measures that were promised in the manifesto of the party in leadership.

However, it emphasises the fact that the governing party must have won a majority in the formation of the government and that is simply not the case on this occasion. Therefore now it is technically possible for the upper house to repeal measures featured in the minority government’s manifesto.

This becomes truly intriguing when one learns that many members of the unelected chamber are indeed pro-EU. The future of this British government remains unclear but it seems certain that the drama of the hung parliament is only the beginning of a reign of controversy and difficult choices.