The Constitution Unit


Minority and Multi-Party Government

March 2009 - November 2009

Sponsor: Institute for Government
Principal Investigator: Professor Robert Hazell
Principal Researchers: Akash Paun, Mark Chalmers, Dr Ben Yong and Dr Catherine Haddon

Making Minority Government work - front cover

About the Project

There has been considerable press comment on the possibility of a hung parliament after the next general election. A new report by the Constitution Unit and the Institute for Government considers the implications for MPs, Whitehall and the general public. It concludes that Westminster and Whitehall are unprepared, and that minority government is more likely than coalition. "We are seriously underprepared for the possibility of a hung parliament after the next election," warns Sir Michael Bichard, Executive Director of the Institute for Government. "Westminster and the wider public traditionally perceive minority government as weak, short and unstable, but it need not be that way." The report, Making Minority Government Work, shows how minority government can work effectively in the interests of good government and a stronger Parliament. It draws on lessons from New Zealand and Canada - and from the SNP minority government in Scotland. "Minority government could work at Westminster too," says Professor Robert Hazell. "But everyone would need to raise their game - government, the parties, the civil service and the media." Making Minority Government Work (105 pp.) was published in December 2009 and is the output of a 9-month comparative study based on an extensive analysis of secondary literature, parliamentary proceedings, government documents and media coverage complemented by a series of interviews with government officials, academics and commentators from the four political systems examined. The main lessons from the report include:

  • After the election, all concerned must be prepared for a longer than usual period of government formation while the parties negotiate. In the interim Gordon Brown remains Prime Minister, leading a caretaker government.
  • The parties should prepare before the election for negotiations immediately afterwards, with negotiating teams and plans ready.
  • The civil service must be prepared to facilitate the negotiations on behalf of all parties involved, not just the outgoing government.
  • The parties and the civil service should be prepared for many different combinations of minority and/or coalition government; and (potentially) for a relaxation of collective cabinet responsibility.
  • Support parties (such as the Liberal Democrats) should consider supply and confidence agreements, instead of coalition, to help them preserve their distinct identity.
  • It is difficult to co-ordinate 'the opposition' against the government, or to bring the government down. Opposition parties can influence government policy through bilateral deals.
  • Minority government has some advantages over coalition: single party control, greater policy coherence, quicker decision making within the executive.
  • But a minority government cannot govern in a majoritarian way. It must accept the likelihood of frequent parliamentary defeats, and prepare the media and the public for them.
  • The Monarch must not be embroiled in government formation. Clearer rules are needed to explain that it is not the Queen's role to form a government, or to facilitate negotiations. The decisions to form a government must be arrived at by politicians. The Prime Minister then advises the Queen which party leader commands the confidence of Parliament.
  • Parliament can become stronger under minority government, but cannot make policy. The volume of legislation is unlikely to diminish, but Parliament may take longer to pass bills, and amend them more heavily
  • Parliamentary reform will not happen, even in a hung Parliament, without a clear agenda and champion who can make it happen.
  • The media play a key role in explaining the British parliamentary system and how governments are formed and dissolved. They shape public perceptions about minority government, and may distort them. For the public, minority government is more transparent and accountable than coalition government.

Further Reading:

Cabinet Office

Submission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee 10 October 2010

Submissions to Justice Committee 24 February 2010

Press and Magazine Articles:


Conference Papers and Presentations:

Press Releases:

  • 23 November 2009
  • 26 November 2009