Hung parliaments and the challenges for Westminster and Whitehall

Westminster perceives minority government as weak, unstable, incoherent and short term in its approach to policy.

Recent experience in Canada supports that, with unstable minority governments and political and constitutional crises. But in New Zealand and Scotland minority governments and minority parliaments have been much more effective.

This report is about how to make minority government work. It summarises the recent experience in Canada, New Zealand and Scotland, and the historical experience at Westminster. It then draws out lessons for all the main actors.

Lessons for the Prime Minister and government

Minority government has some advantages over coalition: single party control, greater policy coherence, quicker decision making. But a minority government cannot govern in a majoritarian way. It must accept the likelihood of frequent parliamentary defeats, and prepare the media and the public for them, so they are not seen as confidence issues. To avoid being blown off course, it must set out a clear strategy and set of long term goals.

Lessons for the civil service

Be prepared for a caretaker government, and the need to support negotiations between political parties during a prolonged period of government formation. Be prepared for many different possible combinations of minority and/or coalition government, including looser forms of partnership that may require relaxation of collective Cabinet responsibility. This need not undermine Cabinet confidentiality, but does require a clear set of rules. Serving a minority administration also requires a different set of skills, including closer monitoring of parliamentary developments and facilitation of inter-party negotiations.

Lessons for Parliament

Parliament can become stronger under minority government, but cannot make policy or force the government to do anything against its will. Parliament may take longer to pass bills, and amend them more heavily, but the overall volume of legislation is unlikely to diminish greatly. Parliamentary reform to reduce the government’s dominance of parliamentary business will not happen without a clear agenda and champion who can make it happen.

Lessons for opposition parties

Prepare before the election for negotiations immediately afterwards. Consider the alternatives before entering into coalition: supply and confidence agreements may help a party preserve its distinct identity. It is difficult to co-ordinate ‘the opposition’ against the government, or to bring the government down, but opposition parties can influence government policy through bilateral deals.

Lessons for the Crown

The mystique about the process of government formation and dissolution risks drawing the Crown unnecessarily into controversy. There need to be clearer rules which explain that it is not the monarch’s role to form a government, or to facilitate negotiations. The decision to form a government must be arrived at by politicians, and the Prime Minister then advises the monarch on who can command the confidence of Parliament.

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