12 June 2017
The snap Election had been widely expected (and intended) to deliver an increased majority to the Conservative Government and provide a mandate for its Brexit negotiating position. The result whereby the Conservatives lost their majority has triggered greater uncertainty. Here we analyse the implications of the result.
1. A minority Government
There has been no question of a formal coalition as in 2010-15 between the Conservatives and the Liberal-Democrats. The latter ruled it out before the Election, understandably following their huge loss of seats in 2015, and a formal coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) would further endanger the Northern Ireland peace process, given the current deadlock in the Stormont Assembly. An agreement to obtain support from the DUP was the most sensible way forward. In practice, given the absence of Sinn Fein MPs from Parliament, the Government only needs the DUP to abstain to achieve a majority in the House of Commons. The full support of the DUP therefore gives it a small extra margin.
2. A weakened Prime Minister
The Prime Minister carries personal responsibility for the Election, the Manifesto and the campaign. All these were her decisions. Her reputation has therefore been seriously undermined and so has the power of the Government. The resignation of her two closest advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, in response to internal Party criticism, reflects her weakness. Similarly, she is having to be very careful in her ministerial appointments, as she cannot afford further dissatisfaction at that level. Her Cabinet appointments have confirmed in post 20 Ministers, including all the top Ministers such as the Chancellor. There was a surprise return to the Government of Michael Gove as Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which may help with Party management. Although Jeremy Hunt has been re-appointed as Secretary of State for Health, two junior health Ministers – Nicola Blackwood and David Mowat – lost their seats to the Liberal Democrats and Labour respectively so we will see some personnel changes at the Department. Junior Ministers will be announced later this week and will be covered by MAP. If the Conservative Party wanted to have a change in leadership, it can do so by the Parliamentary Party passing a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minster and so precipitating a leadership election. However, there is no indication that the Parliamentary Party wants to go through yet another leadership election, having had two leaders in a year, and many would be unhappy at the prospect of the possible alternative leaders.
3. The European Union (EU)
The negotiations with the EU will be complicated with the Government having to carry Parliament with it. It does not have a formal majority and a number on its own side (including Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Conservatives in Scotland) have major reservations about a “hard Brexit”. Conversely, if too many concessions are made to the EU, others in the Party will withhold their support. There is a real possibility of the Conservatives becoming a divided Party. This may become most evident during the debates on the legislation necessary to fulfil the task of leaving the European Union. There will be a considerable number of Bills, months of debate and amendments which the Government will not always have the power to resist.
The Government’s position on the NHS is unlikely to change and funding levels will largely remain the same, maintaining pressure on healthcare leaders to deliver efficiency savings and make difficult decisions about how they sustain service standards. The party’s manifesto included reference to legislation to support if current arrangements were found to be “slowing reform or preventing clear accountability”. The legislation would likely have been relating to Simon Stevens’ plans for accountable care organisations. Given the traditional opposition to structural change within the NHS, this may be an area where a weakened Government chooses not to go ahead.
5. The Parliamentary Timetable
The Queen’s Speech will be held on Wednesday 21st June and will be less partisan because of the Parliamentary arithmetic. A number of Manifesto commitments will be effectively dropped. The vote on the Queen’s Speech will be critical, but with the support of the DUP it will go in favour of the Government. Parliament itself will go into recess on 20 July, so there will only be a month of Parliamentary activity. The House of Commons has to approve the allocation of Select Committee Chairs between the Parties based on their respective strengths. This should be completed by around 10 July and will involve the Conservatives losing some of their Chairs. Given the further need to elect members of the Committees, their work will not start properly until October 2017.
6. Another General Election?
Parliament has been elected for five years and only two provisions can trigger an election beforehand:
- A motion of no confidence is passed by a simple majority and 14 days elapses without the House passing a confidence motion in any new Government formed
- A motion for a general election is agreed by two thirds of the total number of seats in the Commons including vacant seats (as happened in the last General Election)
In short, the Prime Minister cannot by herself initiate a General Election and there is no appetite at present for yet another one.