British Parliament building

A divided country, an uncertain government

The election many thought was a foregone conclusion has resulted in a hung Parliament and no party with enough seats to govern alone.

There will be many detailed post mortems in the days and weeks to come into exactly how Theresa May managed to lose her majority. However at this stage it seems clear the Conservatives fought a disastrous campaign. The party’s ‘Brexit-or-bust’ strategy seems to have alienated as many Remain voters as it attracted Leavers; the manifesto turned off many core Tories; and Mrs May’s lack of charisma as a communicator and leader was all too apparent. The result has revealed a hugely divided country, between urban and rural areas; the north and south; between England, Scotland and Wales; the old and young, and of course Brexit and Remain.

326: the magic number

Under Britain’s unwritten constitution in the event of a hung Parliament the incumbent Prime Minister has the first opportunity to form a government. The key test is whether the PM can command the 326 votes needed to form an overall majority in the House of Commons. With just one seat to declare, the Tories are on 318, down on their 2015 haul of 331. But with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party’s 10 votes, Mrs May has the slender majority she needs.

So following private discussions with the DUP this morning, and a trip to Buckingham Palace at lunchtime, Mrs May gave a statement in Downing Street announcing she would, with the support of “our friends and allies” in the DUP, form a government to “provide certainty and lead Britain forward”.

Showing no signs of the serious reversal she has experienced at the ballot box, she said Brexit talks would begin as planned on 19th June and that her government would also focus on the key challenges facing the country including fighting terrorism and ensuring fairness, prosperity and opportunity for citizens. She provided no details at all on the specific policies her Government will be pursuing, nor of how the Conservatives and DUP will work together in practice.

We can expect further details on both these fronts to emerge in the coming days. But at the moment the most plausible scenarios appear to be either a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, where the DUP would support the Tories on key confidence and budget votes, or a more flexible minority government arrangement in which support would be provided on individual votes on an issue by issue basis.

Both are inherently less stable than a formal coalition and therefore prone to failure, although the SNP governed successfully in Scotland as a minority administration between 2007 and 2011. For either to work and be sustainable over the long term, close cooperation between both parties will be needed.

There will certainly be many more political ups and downs, and trials for this new form of government, over the coming days and months. But at this stage another election to resolve the divisions exposed last night cannot be ruled out.

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