tkitching (tkitching) wrote,

The Hung Parliament

The people of Britain have spoken with one clear, united voice, and together, they said "Errrrrrrrm...". So to a hung Parliament, and desperate-deal making we go. What does this mean for the likely political activity and policy output of the next year or so?

On the face of it, the Conservatives, backed by 10 DUP MPs, have a working majority in the House of Commons. But this does not mean it will be business as usual. In this situation, the entire range of parliamentary checks and balances will be on display in their fullest force, and getting anything other than the most basic of business through will be nearly impossible. This will be a nightmare Parliament for the Conservatives. They'll achieve nearly nothing and get blamed for a great deal. In terms of functionality, this government starts from where John Major finished. That is not a good place to be. We won't even get a cones hotline out of this mess. Let's go through the many problems the Conservatives face.

The first point is that this is not a coalition. That would be a formal binding agreement between parties, divvying up roles, responsibilities, and posts, and would agree a joint programme of activity over a specified period. It would normally occur between parties who believed that they had both a realistic prospect of a lengthy government and a good chance of fulfilling their agreed joint programme. It is clear that there is little chance of either, therefore this agreement between the Conservatives and the DUP is nothing like so formal, (not to mention that a formal coalition with a Northern Ireland party would probably be in breach of the good Friday agreement) and is a loose arrangement to ensure only that basic government business like the budget can pass, and votes of no confidence cannot. It is open ended and it can therefore end at any time. In return for specific support, the DUP will ask for favours, probably in the form of funding for things in Northern Ireland. The longevity of the arrangement will be limited by either a situation where the Conservatives grow tired of satisfying increasingly brazen demands and having to justify them to a skeptical public, or when by-elections or defections remove the functional majority of this arrangement.

This brings us to the first major limitation of Conservative power. Each thing that needs to be passed will involve finding out what the DUP require in return, and negotiating their support. This will be difficult and time consuming, and will render the Conservatives extremely cautious in what they try to pass. They will save their few political tokens for essential business of government, such as the budget, rather than pushing the majority of their manifesto. Most manifesto pledges can therefore be ignored. They cannot be acted upon with any realistic prospect of success unless they command genuine cross party support, like price-capping in the domestic energy market.

The second limitation the Conservatives face is their own backbenchers. During the previous parliament, with a majority of 17, and the tacit support of the DUP anyway, the Conservatives could withstand a dozen back benchers rebelling and still pass legislation. This time, it will only take 3 to stop it. Not only that, these back benchers will be much twitchier and much more concerned with the thoughts of their constituents, now their once large majorities are wafer thin. The slightest whiff of controversy will breed rebels aplenty. This pretty much rules out the DUP trying to influence social policy. They know they can only get cash, as attempting to push their social agenda will cause the deal to collapse, as Conservative backbenchers would squash it out of self-preservation. The DUP are not stupid and will push for what they know they can get, which is funding.

Should anything controversial somehow pass the Commons despite these hurdles, the Conservatives will now hit a formidable new obstacle; the House of Lords. It is an unwritten rule that the Lords do not oppose anything that has been in the manifesto of the election winning party. As the Tories failed to win a majority, it is unlikely that the Lords will feel bound by this. They will not consider the Conservatives to have a clear mandate, and will therefore feel the convention does not apply, and will vote on their consciences. There is no Tory majority in the Lords, and anything controversial will be stalled here forever. This does not affect the budget which can be passed by the Commons alone, but does affect just about everything else. In theory, the Commons can overrule the Lords through the Parliament act, but only if the exact same legislation is introduced and passed again in the Commons a year or more later. Given the difficulties and complications in passing legislation through the Commons, and the likely short nature of this government, this is remote. The Lords will block just about anything controversial the Tories attempt, and won't fear the consequences.

The Conservatives' difficulties do not end here. Much Parliamentary activity is taken up with committees, which influence policy and process. One of their key jobs is to go through legislation relevant to their committee, and amend it accordingly. In the case of the Commons, many committees will no longer have a Conservative majority, and those Conservatives who are on them will be more independently minded, and consequently the outputs of these committees will reflect this. Legislation will be much more carefully scrutinised, and will be dampened down. Expect committees to weigh in much more heavily than before.

I saw some speculation that EVEL (English votes for English laws) would have an effect. I don't believe it would for the Conservatives, as this process introduces a double majority on anything either related solely to England, or England and Wales, meaning that such bills must achieve a majority across the whole of Parliament and a supplementary majority amongst English or English and Welsh MPs. As the Tories have a comfortable majority in that part of the country, they would have no problem commanding the second majority needed. Should Labour attempt a minority government however, the Tories could block things under EVEL, as they command a majority in England and Wales. EVEL does not stop NI MPs from voting on English matters, as some mistakenly believe.

When you consider the extent to which they will be unable to do their work, the full scale of the Conservative electoral disaster becomes apparent. They gambled from a difficult but working majority that allowed them to pass a great deal of what they pleased, to a barely functional government that cannot now change policy in any meaningful way by itself. Yes, they only lost a couple of dozen MPs, but the effect on the direction of travel is huge. The flow hasn't reversed, but it has virtually stopped.

So the Tories are back, but their influence is massively curtailed. The only reason they have for fighting on here, rather than retire into opposition is to maintain control of the Brexit process, and attempt to block Labour from rolling back their policies. As the government, they retain the right to negotiate on behalf of the nation, and can maintain the status quo. In effect, the major purpose of this administration will be to occupy space, and prevent Labour from taking control of the agenda. It will be directionless and basically negative. Unable to progress an agenda, they will be occupying territory until someone is able to claim a functional mandate to do something.

History tells us that parties stalled in this position are soon seen as weak, negative, and even obstructionist, and are usually punished at the ballot box next time out. Will that happen again? That may depend on how long this non-government is allowed to stumble on for, and the character and reputation of the person that leads the Conservatives into the next election. (Not to mention the state of a highly volatile Labour party) But it's impossible for the Conservatives to get it right here. Change leader now, and you are leaderless during the start of Brexit negotiations, the only remaining policy area over which you have meaningful influence, a situation that will play very badly with the electorate. Leave it a while and you're punished for being a useless government, achieving nothing and blocking the process for others, whilst getting into bed with a party considered unpalatable by much of the UK including the left wing of your own party. Labour would be well advised to let this play out for a bit, rather than attempt a minority government of their own that would be hamstrung by all of the same problems detailed above. If they can present an even vaguely coherent plan in the face of constitutional gridlock, they will be well placed to demand another election and win it.

My best guess? This arrangement won't last long, and the longer it lasts, the worse the Conservatives' prospects next time out. I'll stick my neck out and say that this result makes a Labour government next time much more likely. Far more so than if it was Labour trying to deal with the machinations of minority government themselves.

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