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Explainer

Government majority

There are 650 seats in parliament. To have an overall majority, a political party must win over half of these seats: at least 326.

A street light across the river from the Houses of Parliament. In the background you can see the Houses of Parliament.

What is the government’s simple majority? 

There are 650 seats in parliament. To have an overall majority, a political party must win over half of these seats: at least 326.

At the 2019 general election, the Conservative Party won 365 seats. As of 1 March 2024, this stands at 348 following:

  • Ten Conservative by-election defeats and one Conservative by-election victory
  • the suspension of the whip from Rob Roberts, Julian Knight and Crispin Blunt following allegations of sexual misconduct
  • the suspension of the whip from Matt Hancock due to his participation in 'I'm a Celebrity...'
  • the suspension of the whip from Andrew Bridgen for anti-vaccine social media posts (Bridgen subsequently quit the party)
  • the suspension of the whip from Scott Benton after he was filmed offering to lobby ministers in return for payment
  • the surrendering of the whip by Bob Stewart following his conviction for a racially aggravated public order offence, which was subsequently overturned on appeal
  • the suspension of the whip from former deputy party chair Lee Anderson after he failed to apologise for saying “Islamists" have "got control" of the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan
  • Christian Wakeford’s defection to Labour

In practice, Anderson, Benton, Blunt, Bridgen, Hancock, Knight, Roberts and Stewart are still likely to vote with the government on most issues.

The combined total of seats held by opposition parties, independent MPs and the Speaker is therefore 302. This gives the Conservative Party a simple majority of 46 seats. 

How do we calculate the government's working majority?  

In practice, the government has a larger ‘working majority’. This differs from the simple majority because two groups of MPs do not vote in parliament. 

Firstly, there is the Speaker and his or her deputies. While the Speaker is usually first elected to Parliament as a representative of a political party, they resign from their party upon election to the chair. This is because their role requires them to be non-partisan and impartial. The Speaker does not vote upon legislation in the House of Commons unless their vote is required to break a tied division. 

The Deputy Speakers - of whom there are usually three - are also expected to exercise their role impartially and without regard to party politics. They do not vote in divisions either, but unlike the Speaker, they retain their party affiliations.

By convention, of the Speaker and Deputy Speakers, two are drawn from the governing party, and two from the main opposition party. This reduces the effective size of the Commons by four, to 646 MPs. The current Speaker is Sir Lindsay Hoyle; he and Dame Rosie Winterton, one of the Deputy Speakers, were both originally elected as Labour MPs. The two other original Deputy Speakers - Dame Eleanor Laing and Nigel Evans - were elected as Conservative MPs.

In December 2022, Sir Roger Gale - a Conservative MP - was appointed as an additional deputy speaker during the absence of Dame Eleanor Laing. This reduces the effective size of the Commons further, to 645 MPs. 

The second group of non-voting MPs in the House of Commons are the Sinn Féin members. Sinn Féin, a Northern Irish republican political party, rejects British political institutions and its MPs do not take up their seats in the House of Commons. The seven seats won by Sinn Féin in the December 2019 general election bring the total number of voting MPs down to 638. This means the government only needs 319 MPs to have a secure a majority in parliament.

a mosaic chart from the Institute for Government showing how the government’s working majority is calculated. The working majority is currently 52 votes

What is the government's current working majority?

A mosaic chart from the Institute for Government showing the current party composition of the House of Commons, as at 1 March 2024, where there are currently 345 voting Conservative MPs (plus 7 suspended) and 198 voting Labour MPs (plus 9 suspended).]

With 345 Conservative MPs and 293 independent and opposition MPs eligible to vote on parliamentary legislation, the government has an effective working majority of 52 votes in the House of Commons. Twenty-seven Conservative MPs would need to rebel to ensure a government defeat in the House of Commons (provided all opposition and independent MPs vote against the government).

How does the government’s working majority usually change over the course of a parliament?

 a line chart from the Institute for Government showing the change in the government’s working majority during the course of each parliament since 1992, where the 2017 and current parliaments have seen the sharpest fall

The government’s working majority often declines during the course of each parliament, as MPs lose the whip or resign their seats. This is not true of every parliament, however: the 1997 and 2015 parliaments ended with virtually identical government majorities to those with which they had started.

The current parliament has seen a particularly steep fall in the government’s working majority, which is down 35 votes from December 2019. This is a sharper fall than any parliament other than the 2017 parliament, which saw 21 Conservative MPs lose the whip for opposing a no deal Brexit. The 1992 parliament also saw a significant fall in the government’s working majority, although at a lesser rate than in the current parliament.

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