On June 8, voters in the United Kingdom elected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party in 318 of the 650 constituencies that comprise the House of Commons — eight short of a majority, and, for her, a hard loss of 12 seats from the 2015 election. The result: a “hung parliament” (translation: no party won a governing majority) for the second time in three elections.
A hung parliament is very unstable, because under Britain’s unwritten constitution, there are no specific rules on how to proceed. At least four doors open in this scenario: 1) a coalition government; 2) a “confidence and supply” coalition government; 3) a minority case-by-case government; 4) and even a scenario where the second-place (or third-place) party forms the government in its own coalition.
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By acting quickly and decisively after the election, May has kept her job, at least for now. Less adept politicians would have been forced out in the cutthroat nature of the parliamentary system. By walking through door No. 2 — a “confidence and supply” coalition government, May maintains a governing majority by adding 10 seats from another party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland to her Conservative Party’s 318 seats, garnering a razor-thin majority of 328 total seats — just two above the threshold of 326 needed for the majority.
By entering a confidence and supply coalition where the DUP will support her policy ideas in all binding and budgetary votes, May maintains a lot of autonomy for her party without many major concessions in the top cabinet positions, which is something that happens in a formal coalition government, door No. 1.
May faces several immediate issues. First, she will have to provide significant concessions to the DUP and Northern Ireland to maintain the coalition. This is not necessarily bad since the Conservative Party and the DUP share many similar policy platforms. However, if she aligns too closely with the DUP, it could reopen sectarian wounds in Northern Ireland and bolster the movement to unite the north with the Republic of Ireland.
Second, several Conservatives will be lining up to replace her in the coming months, especially if the DUP coalition shows any signs of cracking, or if there is a rebellion within her own party. Third, coalition governments rarely last more than two years before another election is called. If May loses three members of her party for any reason in by-elections, she loses her majority and may be forced into another election. Given that the margin of her majority is so narrow, any changes will weaken her.
There are, however, two major areas where May can claim victory, which could help her in the long term. First, the Scottish National Party lost seats and votes from their impressive performance in 2015 meaning that a second Scottish independence referendum is now unlikely. Second, the Brexit negotiations start more formally on June 19. If May can secure a pragmatic, workable agreement for the UK and the European Union, she could help to stabilize her fragile majority and perhaps even build more solid support.
For President Trump and his allies, May’s victory is the best outcome. Trump and May have a good working relationship, one that could see the formalization of a British-American Free Trade Agreement. Had the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party, been elected under a door No. 4 scenario, Trump would have found himself in an extremely adversarial relationship. Trump and May will continue to work together on issues pertaining to NATO, trade, and combatting terrorism — especially recalcitrant acts committed by ISIS.
Dr. Glen Duerr is an associate professor of International Studies at Cedarville University.