Can a minority Conservative government survive? Let’s look at the maths

Theresa May

Following the unexpected failure of the Conservatives to secure a majority in Theresa May’s snap general election, the UK has its second hung parliament in seven years. With 318 seats, the Conservatives fell eight seats short of a majority, though in reality, they are four short, given the abstentionist policy of Sinn Féin, which won seven seats. Labour, with 262 seats, fell short by 60. Attention naturally focused first on whether the Conservatives could form a government.

The available options were a formal coalition with another party or a Conservative minority government. The prospects of a Conservative-led coalition were limited. After the damage inflicted on the Liberal Democrats by their coalition deal with the Conservatives in 2010-15, the centrist party ruled out any reprise. There was also no chance of a Conservative deal with the Scottish National Party (SNP), which won 35 seats but which is resolutely opposed to the Tories on both constitutional and economic questions. It appears that no one has even contemplated a grand coalition between Labour and the Conservatives, an arrangement that works in Germany but which is alien to the UK other than in wartime.

That left one coalition option for the Conservatives – involving Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which won ten seats. While that would have locked in the DUP to unpopular decisions, it appears to have been opposed by many Conservatives. It would have been a particularly difficult pill to swallow for those critical of the DUP’s socially conservative stance on same-sex marriage and abortion.

Theresa May, the prime minister, has therefore sought to form a minority government, relying on support from the DUP. If it entails a “supply-and-confidence” agreement, then the DUP would support the government in confidence votes, including the Queen’s speech (which sets out the government’s legislative programme), and on financial votes, particularly the budget. All other votes would be decided on a case-by-case basis. In return, the DUP would hope to extract some policy concessions, probably on public spending and welfare.

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