What is a Hung Parliament?


When, after a general election, no one political party has won enough seats to have a majority government controlling the House of Commons, it is known as a hung parliament.

Since 1929, there have been three general elections in the UK that have ended with a hung parliament. In 1974 the general election resulted in a hung parliament which only lasted for a few months, before the government collapsed in October 1974. The second hung parliament came in 2010 when, although the Conservative party was the largest single party, they didn’t have enough seats in the House of Commons to rule alone. In this instance they formed a coalition (shared government) with the Liberal Democrat party; so although the Conservatives were in power, they were unable to get laws to papers through parliament without the backing of the Liberals. Such a situation is hardly ideal. Having to depend upon a different political party, with different political views to your own, naturally makes getting legislation through parliament very much harder than it would be if you had a majority government.

The third hung parliament since 1929 brings us right up to date, with the recent result of the snap election called by the Conservative leader Theresa May (above) leaving her clinging on to power by a thread. It is probably safe to say that the result was not what she expected and, rather than strengthen the party as she had hoped in the light of the Brexit negotiations, she now has to cope with a minority government.

In order to form a Government that can effectively run a country, the winning political party must be able to command a majority in the House of Commons. This majority can include support from other political parties, whether or not there is a formal coalition. On this occasion, rather than form a coalition government like her predecessor David Cameron did in 2010, May has formed an alliance with the small DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) from Northern Ireland.

If the Prime Minister in charge of a hung parliament finds that they cannot get the legislation they want through with the help of their allied party, and so decides to resign, then the leader of the largest opposition party (currently Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party) may be invited to form a government. If they accept the challenge, they can choose to rule either as a minority government (which would make getting their policies through the House of Commons similarly difficult), or again by forming a coalition or alliance with another party.

Hung parliaments often result in the eventual resignation of the Prime Minister. However, a Prime Minister only has to resign if it is clear that they can’t command a majority of the House of Commons, despite any alliances they have formed, or if they lose a vote of confidence motion in the House of Commons. Whether that will be the case this time remains to be seen.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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