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What happens after an indecisive election result?

Published Friday, June 30, 2017

Following the 2017 general election, held on 8 June 2017, the Conservative Party was returned as the largest party, but did not have an overall majority in the House of Commons. Prior to the election it had a working majority of 13.

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Most UK governments are based on the MPs of the government’s party filling a majority of the seats in the House of Commons, and forming a government is relatively straightforward. When no single party holds a majority of seats, this is a hung parliament. In such a parliament, the formation of a government may be delayed. The formation will follow certain conventions and rules, and there are restrictions on government activity until a new administration is set up.

A total of 326 MPs are required for an overall majority in the House of Commons of 650 MPs. Taking into account non-voting MPs (the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers, two of whom will be from the opposition side and one from the Conservative Party) and seven Sinn Fein members elected who do not take their seats, a maximum of 639 MPs could participate in a division. So 320 Conservative MPs would be required for a working majority of one in the House of Commons in the 2017 Parliament. The Conservative Party, while the largest party in the House of Commons following the 2017 election, holds 317 seats including one Deputy Speaker, not enough for a working majority.

On 9 June 2017, the Prime Minister Theresa May visited the Queen to inform her that she would seek to form a Government. The Prime Minister has indicated that the Conservative Party “will continue to work with our friends and allies in the Democratic Unionist Party”. On 9 June 2017, Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, announced that she would hold discussions with the Conservative Party. A confidence and supply arrangement with additional financial support for Northern Ireland was subsequently announced on 26 June 2017. The Government subsequently passed the Humble Address to the Queen’s Speech without amendments on 29 June.

The conventions on government formation are set out in Chapter 2 of the Cabinet Manual. Where no party has a majority, and until a new Prime Minister is appointed by the Queen, the incumbent Prime Minister remains in office. The Cabinet Manual states that the incumbent should resign if and when it becomes clear that they cannot command a majority of the House of Commons and there is a clear alternative government. There is no legal requirement for government formation to take place within a set number of days. 

The Manual has been subject to some criticism over a lack of clarity about the rules regarding caretaker governments (the period between a general election and the formation of a new administration). There has also been some discussion of whether the date that Parliament meets for the first time following an election should be put on a statutory basis, rather than continue as a prerogative power, and whether it should be brought forward or be pushed back in the event of a hung parliament.

Historical information about hung parliaments, coalition agreements, and confidence and supply arrangements is available in the Library Standard Note Hung Parliaments.  Details about the operation of the 2010 Conservative - Liberal Democrat Coalition Government are set out in the Library briefing the 2010 Coalition Government at Westminster.


Commons Briefing papers CBP-7163

Authors: Lucinda Maer; Gail Bartlett

Topics: Constitution, Parliament

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