How do minority governments and hung parliaments work?

Published: 26th Jun 2017

What is a hung parliament?

A hung parliament is when no one party has a majority of MPs in the House of Commons following an election.

There are 650 seats in the House of Commons so to have an overall majority the winning party needs at least 326 MPs.

However, a number of MPs do not vote—the Speaker of the House of Commons (who becomes independent of any party on taking their position) and three Deputy Speakers (usually one from the same party as the Speaker was originally from and two from the opposition side). Sinn Féin MPs elected in Northern Ireland also do not take their seats—there were seven Sinn Féin MPs elected at the 2017 election.

This means that as many as 639 MPs could take part in a vote so to have a “working majority” a party would need to have 320 voting MPs.

The Conservative Party won 317 seats in the election on June 8 (the Speaker stood as an independent). As one Deputy Speaker would also come from the Conservatives, the party was four MPs short of what they needed to guarantee a working majority, resulting in a hung parliament.

This is only the third time since 1945 that an election has resulted in a hung parliament. The first was in February 1974 and the second was in May 2010.

How is that different to a minority government?

Although the Conservative party won the most votes in the election (the party in second place was Labour with 262 seats) it did not have enough MPs to form a majority government. From that position any party has two options to form a government—either it can form a coalition government or it can form a minority government, possibly with agreements of support with smaller parties.

A coalition government is when two or more parties make a formal agreement in order to make up the required amount of seats needed to have a majority of MPs. This type of formal agreement usually involves an agreement on policies and government ministers being drawn from all parties in the coalition. This is what happened between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties following the 2010 General Election.

Although this had happened a number of times in the early years of the twentieth century, this was the first coalition government since 1945.

A minority government is when a party forms a government without having a coalition. This can be a formal agreement for the duration of the parliament known as a “confidence and supply” agreement when smaller parties agree to support the minority government on certain key votes. On the confidence side, this means voting in favour of the government if there is a vote on whether it should stay in power. On the supply side, this includes supporting the government on its plans for taxes and spending in the annual Budget. Alternatively it can be a number of agreements conducted on a vote by vote basis.

The Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)—which won 10 seats in the election—have signed a confidence and supply agreement. Here, the DUP also agreed to support the government on votes to do with Brexit and security. The agreement will last for the duration of this parliament and will be reviewed again in two years’ time.

The only other time since 1945 when an election led to a minority government was in February 1974. However, there have also been a number of times when a government lost its majority during the course of the parliament. This happened in 1977 (when the Labour government elected in October 1974 lost its majority) and again in 1997 (when the Conservative government elected in 1992 lost its majority).


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