A Government is formed in the UK when the Queen invites a member of the House of Commons to form a Government. It is by convention that a Prime Minister comes from the House of Commons and is the leader of the largest party in the House. This is because as Prime Minister they need to be directly accountable to the people’s elected representatives. As such, the last Prime Minister to govern from the House of Lords was the Marquess of Salisbury in 1902.
For a Government to continue in office, it must ‘have the confidence of the House’. This can be tested by a Vote of No Confidence in the House of Commons. If a Government fails a vote of no confidence then the Prime Minister can be obliged to resign and seek a dissolution of Parliament and, thereby, a new General Election. The last time this happened was in a March 1979 when James Callaghan lost a vote of no confidence by 311-310, forcing a General Election which Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives won.
Since 1945, there have been 20 Governments formed. They are made up of one of four types:
Majority Government – This is by far the most common kind of government in the UK. Of the 20 Governments since 1945, 17 have been majority governments. A majority government occurs when one party has a majority in the House of Commons. This enables them to pass most legislation and to avoid a no confidence vote.
Minority Government – This is far less common type of government. Since 1945 there has only been one minority government formed. This occurred in February 1974 when Harold Wilson formed a government, despite being 17 seats short of a majority. However, other governments have become minority governments after desertions and lost by-elections. In fact, James Callaghan started with a majority in 1976, but had lost it by the time of his no-confidence vote in 1979.
Coalition Government – There has only been one formal coalition government since 1945. This was between 2010-2015 when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats created a coalition. In 1977 Labour and Liberals formed the ‘Lib-Lab’ pact, though this was short of a formal coalition.
Confidence and Supply Agreement – An agreement of confidence and supply is where one party agrees to support a government by voting with it in a vote of no confidence and support the budget (supply of money). This is short of a formal coalition, but the smaller party offering the confidence and supply motion will undoubtedly make many demands in order to make the offer. A confidence and supply motion is a way for a party to govern as a minority, but without having to form a formal coalition.
At present, the Conservative Government of Theresa May is relying on a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP to govern. In the General Election of June 2017, the Conservatives were the biggest party with 317 seats. However, governing merely as a minority government would have been dangerous as they could have been out-voted in the House of Commons, leading them in danger of losing a vote of no confidence. Therefore, they turned to the Democratic Ulster Party (DUP) and reached an agreement on confidence and supply. The DUP have 10 MPs and therefore can protect Theresa May’s Government from a no-confidence vote. As part of the agreement, the DUP agreed:
- To support the government in confidence votes
- To support the government’s budget
- To support all finance and money bills
- To support the government in all votes regarding Brexit
- To support the government in all votes regarding national security
However, in addition, there were a number of political agreements that were reached. These included:
- An extra £1.5 Billion to be spent on Northern Ireland
- A guarantee that Britain would spend at least 2% of GNP of national defence
The reliance of the Conservatives on the DUP has come into sharp focus this week after the Government’s first attempt at a Brexit Deal was scuppered after the DUP refused to countenance separate economic arrangements in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. Although an agreement was eventually reached on Friday, there was a real possibility that the resistance of the DUP could have stopped a deal with the European Union that would have enabled trade-talks to begin.
The fact that 10 DUP MPs have an effective veto over Brexit negotiations is concerning to some. However, it is the political reality of the weak electoral position that Theresa May’s government is in. If the DUP were to withdraw their confidence and supply agreement, the Government could fall.