It will have taken three weeks from the UK’s general election on 8th June for a new government to be accepted by the House of Commons later today. What mattered was not Theresa May’s somewhat ill-advised speech after going to see the Queen on Friday 9th June. The crucial constitutional issue is whether or not a government can command the confidence of the House of Commons for its Queen’s Speech. With the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and the costly confidence and supply motion it agreed with May’s Conservative Party, the vote on the Queen’s Speech is likely to pass tonight with around a 13 vote majority. This will mean that the UK formally has a minority Conservative government, supported by the DUP on various issues.
We are in constitutionally uncharted waters, for recent decades at least. The last such agreement – the Lib-Lab pact of the 1970s – was criticised on a number of grounds, not least that the Liberals got very little out of it. Unlike the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition between 2010-15, the DUP will have no ministers in government and therefore not be bound by any conventions of collective responsibility. Yet, the Conservative Party is now reliant on a pretty hard line party from the smallest of the UK’s four territorial constituent parts. Despite austerity, they have been given £1bn for Northern Ireland. All of a sudden Conservative politicians have a new-found interest for the politics of Northern Ireland that they have seldom shown before.
Locus of power
The DUP have agreed to support the Conservatives on confidence motions, the Queen’s Speech; the Budget; finance bills; money bills, supply and appropriation legislation and Estimates, Brexit legislation and national security measures. Anything else will be agreed on a ‘case by case basis’. Although meant to last for the full parliament, the agreement will be reviewed at the end of the parliamentary session, in two years’ time. There will very likely be more concessions to the DUP as time passes.
This means that the main locus of power post-election has shifted from government to parliament. What gave the DUP pole position for such an agreement was two things. Firstly, ideological compatibility with the Conservatives. Secondly, and importantly, the fact that no other party was willing to attempt to do a deal with the Conservatives. Their former coalition partners in the Liberal Democrats have more seats than the DUP, but being pro-Remain and wary of the consequences of propping up a weak Conservative Party after the 2010-15 experience, were presumably unwilling. The DUP would have been weaker had other parties been willing to consider such support, although they would inevitably have extracted their own price from the Conservatives.
On the many issues where the Conservatives do not have DUP support, there is plenty of scope for cross-party discussions however. All political parties are coalitions between different viewpoints, containing Remainers and Leavers, left and right wingers. Party whips in the Commons will have a difficult time ensuring party discipline. MPs, certainly across the two main parties, have become much more rebellious in recent years. With a working majority of only around 13-14 including the DUP, this will only get worse as the government’s hold weakens, as is inevitably the case throughout a parliament. Theresa May (or her successor) will be dependent on truculent backbenchers with axes to grind on various issues. Opposition parties will exploit this to the best of their abilities.
The parliamentary action will not only be in the House of Commons. The government does not have a majority in the House of Lords. Since most of the Conservative Party manifesto did not make it into the Queen’s Speech, there has been argument that the Salisbury convention, where the upper chamber traditionally does not oppose government manifesto commitments, will not apply. Whatever the case in this regard, it is clear that the government faces a battle in the Lords as well as the Commons. Parliamentary procedure and timetabling in both Houses will be crucial.
There will therefore be much drama in this parliament, however long it lasts, and cliff-hanging votes will become regular. One final and often overlooked point. Given that many votes could well lead to a government defeat, expect fewer Ministerial or MPs’ trips abroad in this parliament; both government and opposition MPs will need to be on hand when votes are called. Just what the UK needs as it seeks to build new relationships across the world and disentangle the country from the European Union.
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