This past Wednesday, Queen Elizabeth gave her address to the opening of Parliament after Prime Minister Theresa May’s June 8th snap election. The contents of the Queen’s speech sets the political agenda for the government and outlines what the government aspires to achieve during the parliamentary term. Her speech depicted a scaled-down Brexit policy proposal contrary to what May and the Conservative Party have advocated in the past. The Queen’s reduced legislative aspirations for an aggressive and strong (some would say red, white and blue Brexit), comes as a result of the current hung Parliament. So what exactly is a hung Parliament, and what does it mean for May and Brexit negotiations? To best understand this we’ll take a look at why May called an election, what a hung Parliament is, and how it may add more legislative speed bumps (humps if you’re in the U.K.) to the U.K.’s departure from the E.U.
Since the 23rd of June 2016, the democratic legitimacy and process of Brexit have been a point of contention in U.K. politics. Many remainers have constructed arguments that the Brexit vote was illegitimate, and did not supply the Conservative Party with a democratic mandate to initiate the negotiations. Most remainers cited the fact that young people—who were more likely to vote remain—did not vote last June.
Last year there were also discrepancies of whether or not Parliament even had the authority to begin the process to leave the E.U. This eventually went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the government.
On April 18th, May called a snap election believing that she could increase her majority in Parliament. A snap election is essentially an election that is called outside of the general election cycle, which is every five years in the U.K. This election would essentially act as a second vote to reaffirm and strengthen May’s claim of a democratic mandate for Brexit. In short, an increase in Conservative seats—the Party that supports Brexit—would show remainers that she is certain that she has the backing of the British people.
Unfortunately, May was very wrong. Following the snap election, the Conservatives lost their majority in Parliament, producing a hung Parliament. In a hung Parliament, no party holds a majority of seats. Unlike U.S. politics, if no party holds a majority in the legislature there are far more problems than a lack of a democratic mandate for Brexit.
The U.K. has a fused legislative and executive branches. Members of the majority party in Parliament also hold appointed positions in the government. That would be like if Rex Tillerson was Secretary of State and a Congressman. Similarly, Theresa May leads Parliament and is the head of the government. It becomes super tough for a non-majority party to hold control of the government because it means that legislation is more likely to get voted down in Parliament. This poses a huge issue for May as by calling the election, she was hoping to have an easy time passing Brexit negotiation legislation. This is no longer the case.
In addition, when a hung is produced Parliament, no party has a majority nor the ability to form a government. Therefore the largest party typically looks to form a coalition with a smaller party to reach the 326 seat sweet spot of a majority to form a government. Currently, May is looking into a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party a right-wing party from Northern Ireland. Teaming up with the DUP will give May the majority she needs, however, it’s bound to come with some hiccups.
This isn’t the first time that a coalition government will be formed, in fact, it happened as recently as 2010 which produced a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition with David Cameron as the Prime Minister. The two parties made concessions and amendments to their agendas to reach an agreement. Most notably, Cameron brought Nick Clegg’s alternative vote referendum to the forefront (where it was killed) and blamed the increase in university tuition on the Liberal Democrat Party. From this, it makes sense why the Lib Dems lost many of their seats in the 2015 General Election.
The other notable hung Parliament produced in recent memory was in 1974 where the Conservatives were also predicted to win in a landslide. The 1974 hung Parliament was rather tumultuous and ended in 1979 with a vote of no confidence which would eventually place Margaret Thatcher as the Prime Minister.
Hung Parliaments aren’t unheard of but that doesn’t mean they’re desired. Not commanding a majority in Parliament will make it tough for May to pass through her Brexit negotiation legislation. May and the Conservatives may have to water-down their Brexit negotiation strategies and change their post-breakup projections (if they had any; see “red, white and blue Brexit”).
In addition, the ten DUP held seats could make or break her success. There is also an opportunity for Conservative backbenchers—Members of Parliament that don’t hold government position and sit on the “back benches”—to rebel as it would only take a couple of them to deplete May’s majority. May will most likely be under criticism from Labour and other remainers.
In an effort to garner more support for her red, white and blue Brexit, May might only walk out of Brussels with a black and blue Brexit.
Beckett, Andy. “Britain’s Last Hung Parliament.” The Guardian, March 25, 2010, sec. Politics. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/mar/25/britain-hung-parliament-1974.
“Brexit: Supreme Court Says Parliament Must Give Article 50 Go-Ahead - BBC News.” Accessed June 25, 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-38720320.
Castle, Stephen. “Queen’s Speech to U.K. Parliament Outlines Theresa May’s Scaled-Down Agenda.” The New York Times, June 21, 2017, sec. Europe. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/21/world/europe/brexit-theresa-may-dup.html.
“Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) - Northern Ireland.” Accessed June 25, 2017. http://www.mydup.com/.
Erlanger, Steven, and Stephen Castle. “Theresa May Loses Overall Majority in U.K. Parliament.” The New York Times, June 8, 2017, sec. Europe.