Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election looks like it has backfired spectacularly. The Conservatives have lost their majority, and Britain will have a hung Parliament.
In a hung Parliament, no party has an overall majority in the Commons. These are relatively rare occurrences. There have been five hung Parliaments since 1900, with the most recent being in 2010.
However, a hung Parliament will not necessarily force Theresa May out of Downing Street. The Crown must always have advisers, so the incumbent Prime Minister will remain in office until it is clear that they no longer have the confidence of the Commons. Traditionally, this was decided by a vote on the Speech from the Throne. For example, Stanley Baldwin sought to lead a minority government after the Tories lost their majority in the December 1923 General Election, but he was defeated on the King’s Speech within a matter of days. Conversely, in 2010 Gordon Brown left Downing Street before Parliament met since the Tories had become the biggest party.
Looking at the projected composition of the Commons, it looks like neither the Tories nor Labour would find it easy to govern. A formal coalition would offer the most stability, but both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are likely to struggle to assemble an alliance.
The Tories could probably negotiate an alliance with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party with relative ease, but that would only net them nine seats or so. It could give them a majority, but it would be wafer-thin. They may pick up additional votes from miscellaneous independents, but even with their support, Theresa May’s position is likely to be gravely weakened.
Coalition-building would likely be even more difficult for Corbyn. There’s been talk of a ‘progressive coalition’ between Labour, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens (early indications from the Liberal Democrats suggest that they won’t enter into formal alliances with anyone). But any alliance between Labour and the SNP would be complicated by the fact that Labour is a unionist party while the SNP seeks the breakup of the Union. The West Lothian question would muddy the waters further. And even if Labour could strike a grand bargain, it seems unlikely to give him a workable majority, which would force Labour to eke out additional support from independent MPs.
Another option would be for May or Corbyn to lead a minority government. They would probably try to secure some breathing room by entering into confidence and supply agreements with other parties. In these agreements, a party pledges to support the government on matters of confidence as well as the budget, but they are not bound to support the government on a day-to-day basis. While this can prop up a government, it often goes on to die a death by a thousand cuts.
Even if the Tories manage to stay in government, it’s hard to see how Theresa May can remain in office. This election will become an albatross around her neck, and I doubt she can shed it.
At this point, the only thing that’s certain is that British politics is about to get a lot more chaotic. To (mis)quote Bette Davis, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”