House of Commons Library

Hung parliaments

Published Monday, October 9, 2017

This paper sets out situations where there has been no overall control in the House of Commons since the beginning of the twentieth century.

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A crucial aspect of the British system of government is that the government of the day must enjoy the confidence of the House of Commons.

General elections are held to return MPs to the House of Commons. Most commonly, one party has a majority of seats, and this party then forms a government. If a general election produces results in which no party has a majority of Members this is known as a ‘hung Parliament’. Both the May 2010 and the June 2017 general elections produced ‘hung Parliament’ situations which also occurred several times during the twentieth century. 

Hung Parliaments may result in formal coalition agreements, or government by a minority administration, possibly by way of a “confidence and supply” arrangement. 

The general election on 8 June 2017 concluded with the Conservative Party being the largest party in Parliament with 317 (of 650) seats.  A confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionists was announced on 26 June 2017.

In May 2010, no single party obtained a majority.  Following negotiations between the political parties, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties formed a coalition government.  At that point, the UK had not been governed by a formal coalition in peacetime since the National Government of 1931-40.

Having governed as a minority government after the February 1974 general election, Labour won a small majority in October 1974.  However, during the course of the Parliament, it lost its overall majority.  Facing a motion of no confidence it sought the support of other parties.  The Labour/Liberal pact of 1977-78, the only formal cross-party UK parliamentary agreement between 1945 and 2010, did not go further than support on key votes.   The terms of the agreement between the two parties were announced in the House of Commons by the Prime Minister, James Callaghan.

There had been some negotiations between Labour and the Liberal Democrats on political reform before the 1997 election. However, in the event no coalition was considered necessary although the then Liberal Democrat leader did temporarily sit on the Cabinet Committee concerned with constitutional reform. There have, however, been coalition governments in both Scotland and Wales since devolution.

This note sets out a variety of situations over the 20th and 21st centuries where there has been no overall control in the House of Commons. The operation of the Conservative - Liberal Democrat coalition government is explained in Library briefing, The 2010 Coalition Government at Westminster.  Information about the 2017 Government is available in the briefing, The 2017 Government at Westminster: Governing as a minority.

Commons Briefing papers SN04951

Authors: Lucinda Maer; Richard Kelly

Topics: Central government, General elections, Parliament, Political parties

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