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After a general election, the party with a majority of seats in the House of Commons gets to form the next Government. With a few exceptions, elections end with one party having a majority. Usually, the majority is fairly large.

The 2015 general election is a Conservative majority, but barely. They’re only just over the halfway mark, which means it’s conceivable their majority could be lost before the next general election in 2020. MPs could lose a by-election, defect to another party, or be appointed to a neutral position (e.g. Speaker of the House).

For comparison, the Conservatives had a net loss of four MPs between 2010 and 2015.

I’m wondering what, if anything, losing a Commons majority might mean.

Is there any precedent for the governing party to lose its majority in the House of Commons, mid-term, and what are the likely consequences?

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Things would get a bit interesting, and changed in 2011. Precedent is now of questionable validity.

Before 2011, the government needed to be able to win any confidence vote in the House of Commons. This could be an explicit vote on confidence in the government, but it could also be any vote the government designates as a confidence vote (all supply bills were in the latter category). That means that the government could say "if Parliament doesn't pass this, we're resigning." Losing a confidence vote normally meant elections were called; the Queen could invite someone else to form a government instead of calling elections, but that was generally not done. The government could also just go ahead and ask for new elections without bothering with a confidence vote; again, that could be denied, but likely wouldn't be.

What governments could do as an alternative to new elections was get a confidence-and-supply agreement with another party, under which the government would make policy concessions to that party and that party would vote with the government on all confidence votes. Since substantive votes could be confidence votes, that means that the government could use confidence-and-supply agreements to get votes on actual issues they cared about.

Much of the above is irrelevant now. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 says that Parliaments last five years; they cannot be dissolved early, with two exceptions. First, two-thirds of the House of Commons can vote to dissolve. Second, an explicit motion of no confidence can lead to dissolution. In the latter case, it must be explicit; there are no more confidence votes on actual issues, which means the government can't necessarily use a confidence-and-supply agreement to get its way on important policy. Also, there are 14 days after a vote of no confidence for Parliament to pass a motion of confidence, cancelling dissolution. That seems designed to give the opposition a chance to form a government without new elections being called. However, as things stand, the conventions around this are unclear. It appears that minority governments are more stable than before, but they may have a much harder time getting core policies passed. A party can't get new elections to shore up its majority.

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  • 2
    IMHO the last paragraph is now one of the key reasons that Brexit has been so drawn-out and painful. After the 2017 general election, the Conservatives were stuck in exactly the scenario you describe, and there is still no end in sight. – Kevin Sep 4 '19 at 23:25
  • @Kevin I've been thinking the same thing. – cpast Sep 4 '19 at 23:59
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Yes, there is a precedent.

In March 1977 James Callaghan's Labour party lost its majority because of a by-election defeat and faced a vote of no confidence. To stay in power Callaghan had to form the "Lib-Lab pact" with David Steel's Liberal party. The 13 Liberals agreed to vote with the government in any vote of no confidence in exchange for support for some of their policies. The two parties formed a joint Consultative Committee to resolve disputes. That pact ended by mutual agreement in September 1978, but Callaghan still hung on with the help of the Scottish National Party. The SNP withdrew its support in March 1979, a vote of no confidence was held, and Labour lost. Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives won the subsequent election and the next three elections after that.

Make of that what you will.

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Now (Early September 2019) you can see exactly what happens... Theresa May's flimsy majority evaporated with some defections over the ongoing Brexit, uh, discussions.

Now the prime minister and parliament have begun wrestling each other:

  • Boris Johnson tries to extend the parliament's vacation,
  • The parliament counters by taking over its order of business for the remaining few days, and passed several bills forcing the prime-minister's hand to request an extension of the deadline for the UK's exit from the EU - against the single commitment and principle PM Johnson has set for his government
  • PM Johnson puts forward a motion to hold a snap election - supposedly to break the stalemate
  • Parliament rejects the motion, demanding that the PM first carries out their diktat, against his will - perhaps fearing that he will circumvent them somehow if they accept the snap elections (or perhaps - fearing that he wins).

So, the Parliament-Government relations have become quite unstable, although in fairness there's the sword of Brexit above everybody's head; on the other hand - without such a dramatic situation, it's not likely the majority would be lost like this.

I won't venture a guess whether this stalemate lasts or not...

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