What is a hung parliament – and what happens if we get one?

Two-time prime minister Benjamin Disraeli famously said that “England does not love coalitions”, but in recent years we have become quite used to them.

Since 2010, there have been only two years during which the UK has had a majority government, with two out of the three general elections resulting in a hung parliament.

The last UK election to produce a hung parliament was 2017, when Theresa May gambled on boosting her majority in a snap election but squandered her party’s lead, ending up without an majority at all.

The jury is still out on whether Boris Johnson will get a majority in December. Polls have predicted a 48-seat Tory cushion. However, figures released today by Kantar show Labour up by five points and chasing down the Tories’ 11-point lead.

What is a hung parliament?

A hung parliament means that no party has won enough seats in a general election to have a majority in the House of Commons. To win an election and form a government, a party needs to get one more seat than all the others added together. 

What happens next?

In the event of a hung parliament, the incumbent has the first opportunity to put together a viable government. Next in line is the party with the largest number of seats.

Since the Conservatives are in office, they have the first opportunity to assemble a government. If the Tories are unable to do so, the Labour Party will be able to try as the second largest party.

If that happens, the UK’s smaller parties could become kingmakers.

Which parties could form a government?

The Conservatives are unlikely to agree a pact with the DUP again, because the DUP has said Johnson’s EU withdrawal deal is unacceptable as it sets Northern Ireland apart from the UK when it comes to customs and other EU rules.

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The Daily Express reports that DUP leader Arlene Foster does not expect Johnson to return a large majority and has told him that the DUP will “continue to use our influence” to revisit elements of his Brexit deal after the election.

No other opposition party is likely to enter into an agreement with the Conservatives, meaning that in the event of a hung parliament, we could end up in a situation where the party that wins the most seats does not end up forming the government. That hasn’t happened since the 1924 election.

The opposition parties are being coy about whether they would enter into an agreement with each other. Any agreement not including the Tories will need Labour’s participation, as it is likely to win the second highest amount of seats, which will form the bedrock of any anti-Conservative government.

Metro reports that Jeremy Corbyn has ruled out a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, saying that they “happily signed up to austerity” when they entered government with the Tories in 2010.

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon has signalled that the Scottish National Party (SNP) would be willing to support a Labour minority government, with the BBC reporting that scrapping Trident would be one of the SNP’s key demands.

Lord Kerslake, who is advising Labour on transitioning to power, has said the party would “need to have conversations” with the SNP, in the event of a hung parliament, says the Daily Mail.

If Labour does seek the support of the SNP, expect a second referendum on Scottish independence to also be on the table.

Plaid Cymru has also said that it would work with Labour on a “case-by-case basis”, according to the BBC, with leader Adam Price saying he “would work with anyone to advance the case of Wales”. Plaid Cymru has also formed a “pro-Remain pact” with the Greens and the Lib Dems, suggesting they can work together.

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How many seats does a government need?

There are 650 seats in parliament so technically, 326 MPs constitute a majority. However, Sinn Fein, which won seven seats, refuses to sit in parliament as it does not recognise British rule in Northern Ireland. And by convention, the Speaker does not vote in the Commons.

Is there a deadline?

In 2017, official guidance gave Theresa May five days to put together a deal and save her government.

Cabinet Office guidelines state that if, during the first sitting of the new parliament, it “becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative”, the prime minister is expected to resign as leader of the government.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, introduced by the coalition after the 2010 election, this triggers a 14-day period in which any other party – in this scenario Labour – has the opportunity to assemble a majority.



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