Once again, the UK’s electorate have gone to the polls, and once again the result has confounded the pollsters, with the Conservative party losing 12 seats resulting in a hung parliament. Despite seeing their share of the vote rise overall, the Conservatives lost seats in England and Wales to Labour and the Liberal Democrats and can no longer command a majority in the House of Commons.
“The snap election was meant to give the Conservatives a ‘strong and stable’ base for the looming Brexit negotiations. Instead, prime minister May’s gamble has hugely backfired with a ‘hung’ Parliament casting further uncertainty on the UK’s ability to negotiate its withdrawal from the EU. As a consequence, the uncertain position for businesses continues.” – Tim Wright
A hung Parliament is one in which no single party has the 326 seats necessary for an overall majority in the House of Commons. In such circumstances, prime minister Theresa May (who was quick to declare that she had no intention of falling on her sword and resigning) and her party continue in office for the time being whilst it is decided who will attempt to form a new government. She has until Tuesday 13 June—when the new Parliament is scheduled to meet for the first time—to put together a deal with one or more of the other political parties, but if the prime minister fails to do so she should resign in accordance with the official Cabinet Office guidance. If this happens, another election may become inevitable.
Forming a government
There are various options when no single party commands a majority in the Commons—in 2010, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats quickly formed a coalition government. This time around, the Liberal Democrats clearly stated during the campaign that any such deal would not be an option. The Scottish Nationalist Party, Welsh party Plaid Cymru and the Greens all made it clear that they would not work with the Conservatives either. Instead, Mrs. May has turned to Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party and is believed to have struck a deal whereby the DUP will provide support to her party to enable it to pass legislation in the Commons. Today, she will attend Buckingham Palace to seek permission from the Queen to form the government.
What is the DUP?
The DUP, who in 2016 entered an “informal coalition” with the Conservatives, to prop up the ruling party’s small Parliamentary majority, won an additional two seats bringing its total to ten, making it the fifth-largest party in the House of Commons. The DUP is the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland. The DUP has historically strong links to the Protestant church and is known for its somewhat right-wing and traditionalist views. It has a single MEP in the European Parliament.
The DUP stance on Brexit
In last June’s referendum, Northern Ireland voted Remain by a majority of 56 percent to 44 percent. Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, has made it very clear that she is keen to avoid a hard border with Ireland and she has spoken out against a so-called “hard” Brexit:
“No-one wants to see a ‘hard’ Brexit, what we want to see is a workable plan to leave the European Union, and that’s what the national vote was about—therefore we need to get on with that… in a way that respects the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland, and, of course, our shared history and geography with the Republic of Ireland.”
In its manifesto, the party seeks a “comprehensive free trade and customs agreement with the European Union”.
What next for the Brexit talks?
With Brexit talks due to start in less than two weeks’ time, Mrs. May’s snap election has not secured the clear mandate that she sought for her version of a hard Brexit.
European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker hopes the election result, which he described as a “shock,” will have “no major impact” on the Brexit negotiations. “I hope we will not experience a delay in the conclusion to these negotiations…. First we have divorce and exit and then we envisage the architecture of future relations. I hope the result of the elections will have no impact on the negotiations we are desperately waiting for,” he said. However, Gunther Oettinger, the EU’s budget commissioner, told German radio he was unsure the Brexit negotiations could begin on time, and that having Britain as a weak negotiating partner could result in “a poor outcome.”
The need for a deal with the DUP, putting Northern Ireland at the centre of the Brexit talks, may well cause tension with the Conservative’s Eurosceptic wing which strongly influenced Mrs. May’s negotiating position. Instead of the “strong and stable” platform she sought of the electorate to support her version of Brexit, Mrs. May’s position has been significantly weakened, her negotiating hand badly damaged, and even her longer tenure as head of her own party threatened. Whilst Mrs. May can still start negotiations as planned, she may have to dilute her plans if she wants to get any Brexit-related legislation through the House of Commons, where she will need the DUP’s support.