Navigating a hung Parliament: who are the tribes that will determine the Government’s fate?
A hung Parliament is full of complexity and political risk. Who are the political tribes that will determine the minority Government's fate?
This weekend has proven that Theresa May’s premiership has just got a whole lot tougher. Gone are the days where the media struggled for stories about the Prime Minister. It is now open season as different factions seek to settle scores and absolve themselves of blame for a failed campaign. Mrs May now faces an angered and emboldened Cabinet, with senior protagonists making no secret of having demanded a new style of leadership from the Premier. The extremely limited nature of the reshuffle exposes the imperative of not further rocking the boat rather than any desire for continuity. If the Cabinet is restive, then the backbenches will be something else. This creates problems not only for the Prime Minister’s immediate survival, but also for the longer-term prospects of the Government.
This matters for Jeremy Hunt, returning for another stint at Health. The Conservative manifesto was a tacit admission that the NHS may need legislation to stand any chance of delivering on its plans, but the parliamentary arithmetic will make even non-controversial legislation problematic (and legislation that hints at a significant reorganisation of the NHS will be controversial). The irony of Brexit creating one of the most legislative-heavy agendas ever at the time when there is no working majority is not lost on Government business managers.
A hung parliament severely constrains any Prime Minister, but particularly one who has lost her majority. Every piece of legislation will require careful negotiation. So who are the parliamentary tribes who will determine the minority Government’s fate and set the limits for any reform in the NHS?
The Orange order
Today the focus will be on the Democratic Unionists, both in terms of what they might want, how reliable a partner they might be, the implications for efforts to re-establish home rule in Northern Ireland and whether any relationship can successfully isolated from the more reactionary social views of some of the DUP MPs. Some Conservative MPs are already proving to be squeamish about this. The unionists may be adamant about keeping Jeremy Corbyn away from power, but that is a step short of unconditional support for the Conservatives. Downing Street already appears to have botched the initial courtship, having prematurely announced a deal. The health service in Northern Ireland faces its own problems and the DUP may well seek additional financial support to address these. DUP MPs have also spoken out about health issues beyond Northern Ireland with Jim Shannon, for example, frequently calling for action on access to cancer medicines.
The DUP will not be the only Parliamentary faction who could cause trouble. The one bright spot of 8 June for the Conservatives was the resurgence of their party in Scotland. It has not gone unnoticed by newly returned Tartan Tories that their campaign was very different from that south of the border. They will also feel that they owe their loyalty to Ruth Davidson, not Theresa May. Talk of separation from the London party is overblown (Ruth Davidson put it more bluntly), but they will be wary of doing anything that risks reversing the decontamination of the Conservative brand in Scotland. Support will be there, but it will not be a blank cheque. One eye will be on creating a platform to challenge the SNP in the next Scottish Parliament elections.
Those Conservative MPs loyal to the modernisers who preceded Theresa May will also require careful handling. Some are continuity remainers, reluctant to support anything that could be seen as representing a ‘hard’ Brexit, others will not countenance anything that they see as risking a return to the ‘nasty’ party once decried by Mrs May herself. All will be emboldened, having felt isolated since the fall of David Cameron. There is an ocean of clear blue water between them, hard Brexiteers and the DUP. By and large, they won’t want to be seen to be responsible for disrupting the Prime Minister’s agenda, but will they be prepared to play nicely and for how long? Presumably their very presence takes policies such as grammar schools off the agenda and necessitates extremely careful handling of Brexit and immigration legislation.
The hardcore Brexiteers
Then there are the hardcore Brexiteers. The European Research Group of MPs, led by Steve Baker, proved what an effective (and disruptive) force they could be in the run-up to the referendum. Today, they stand behind Theresa May, who they feel is the best hope of delivering Brexit in its entirety. But their confidence will have been shaken. Many will have endured scares on 8 June (Baker’s majority, for example, more than halved). When the inevitable compromises of the Brexit negotiations become apparent, how will they respond?
The House of Lords, too, will be problematic. The Government has no natural majority in the upper chamber and there is doubt about whether the Salisbury-Addison Convention (where the Lords agrees to not to oppose measures included in the governing party’s manifesto) applies in a hung parliament in the absence of a formal coalition. Peers have already shown themselves to not be afraid of challenging aspects of Brexit. We can expect plenty of trouble from the Lords on any remaining aspects of the Prime Minister’s domestic agenda, as well as Brexit.
Finally, there is a newly emboldened and confident opposition. Labour spent much of the last parliament fighting itself. Yet their surprise election performance will be – at least temporarily – a unifier. Inexperienced frontbenchers have learnt on the jobs and some big hitters may return from the backbenchers. The Liberal Democrats, too, will seek to make use of their larger numbers to make a bigger impact in Westminster. If Jeremy Corbyn can find a way of translating his appeal on the campaign trail into better parliamentary and media performances in normal times, then the Government will be in for a bumpier ride.
These parliamentary tribes all have very different (and often incompatible) agendas, yet the Government will need to find a way of navigating them if it is to be maintained. Survival, rather than reform, will be the scale of ambition.
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