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How to make a minority government work

The UK seems set to enter a period of minority government with Theresa May remaining in office, supported by some form of cooperation arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Akash Paun looks at ‘confidence and supply’ agreements.

What is a pure minority government?

Governments without a parliamentary majority can sustain themselves in different ways. In a pure or unsupported minority government, where the Government has no formal relationship with any other party, the ruling party must build a majority on an issue-by-issue basis.

Despite the apparent fragility of this position, it can work. The SNP’s former party leader, Alex Salmond, governed in this way for four years in Scotland. The Conservative Stephen Harper did likewise in Canada (both later won an outright majority).

Successful minority government is based on a combination of approaches, including:

  • expectation management – recognising and even making a virtue of the fact that government legislation would be amended or even defeated
  • strategic focus – notably true for the SNP, which reorganised government around a set of strategic outcomes instead of concentrating on legislation
  • building relationships and channels of communication with opposition parties and backbenchers, raising the importance of effective parliamentary whips
  • divide and rule – conceding small but symbolically important things to other parties to keep enough of parliament on-side while advancing your core agenda
  • brinkmanship – when necessary, both Harper and Salmond raised the spectre of resignation and/or an unpopular early election if their plans were blocked.

The other option for the biggest party is to negotiate a 'confidence and supply' agreement – which the Conservatives may seek to do now with the DUP.

What is a 'confidence and supply' agreement?

A ‘confidence and supply agreement’ is a formalised cooperation arrangement guaranteeing support for a minority government on parliamentary votes critical to its survival, whether for a full parliamentary term or a defined period. Confidence and supply agreements are a middle ground between coalition and pure minority government with a distinct set of advantages and challenges.

Such agreements have grown more common internationally. They have been used to sustain minority governments in New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands and elsewhere. At Westminster, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats each drafted confidence and supply agreements in 2010 as fall-back options if their coalition deal had fallen apart. The Lib-Lab Pact of 1977–78 was an earlier, more limited version of such a deal.

Confidence deals typically make clear that the support party or parties must back the Government on explicit confidence votes, and votes on budgets and supply (government spending). In return, the support parties are given government support for specific policy priorities.

In New Zealand, for instance, the National Government has a confidence deal with the Maori Party, which includes a commitment to investment in a major indigenous community health initiative. In Australia, an agreement between Julia Gillard’s minority government and an independent MP included a commitment to fund hospital redevelopment in the MP's constituency.

Smaller parties may negotiate other kinds of concessions too. A 2007 deal in Scotland granted the Scottish Green Party the chair of a committee in the Scottish Parliament in exchange for supporting the election of Alex Salmond as First Minister. In Australia, the Labor agreement with the Green Party committed to a range of procedural reforms such as additional time for private member’s legislation and the creation of a new Parliamentary Budget Office to enable smaller parties to access an independent policy costing facility.

Do 'confidence and supply' deals work?

'Confidence and supply' agreements can provide for effective government that offers advantages to both governing and support parties. For the Government, they provide the security of knowing they are not in danger of defeat at every key vote, and without having to give up ministerial posts or negotiate the entire policy programme with another party.

The downside is that in areas not covered by the agreement, the Government still needs to build an issue-by-issue coalition to get business through Parliament. If core elements of the deal need to be renegotiated later on, this can cause problems. In the Netherlands in 2012, the minority government needed to impose additional budget cuts but failed to reach agreement with its support party, triggering government collapse and an early election.

For smaller parties, 'confidence and supply' deals allow them to achieve specific policy objectives without having to support the entire government programme, and thereby lose their independent voice in Parliament and wider public debate. But they do have to back the Government on often politically difficult budget plans and have less ability to influence policy than if they enter government as junior coalition partners.

How minority government and any new ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement works will be up to the politicians in Westminster, who have to weigh up these trade-offs. But the parties choose to organise their relationship. International experience can provide useful guidance about the challenges ahead.

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