The challenges for a minority government: Brexit and beyond

16 June 2017

One week on from a remarkable election result, we are still digesting the impact of a DUP supported minority Conservative government, a return to two party politics and the seismic impact of possibly the first real online election. So what does this mean for the business of government?

Brexit was the central reason for the election to be called. In the coming weeks there will be much scrutiny of the new government’s plans and consideration of its negotiating stance. At the time of writing, it’s still unclear how the DUP deal will affect this stance, given that their manifesto supported a “comprehensive free trade and customs agreement with the European Union”, maintenance of the Common Travel Area and with a call for current EU grants to be matched post-Brexit. DUP Leader Arlene Foster has already signalled that: “No-one wants to see a ‘hard’ Brexit, what we want to see is a workable plan to leave the European Union.”

Will the election result mean that Brexit discussions will suddenly become more consultative, for instance, seeking to actively involve other parties and the devolved administrations? There may well be a call for a shift to this approach and a desire to bring back onto the table ideas such as the ‘emergency brake’ for immigration and access to the Single Market. The big problem, however, is a lack of time for a more inclusive debate to resolve positions on, for instance, freedom of movement and immigration policy, with only 21 months to the end of the Article 50 process, and the negotiations scheduled to start next week (unless this is moved by agreement of the EU27).

Then there is the domestic reform agenda. It’s clear that issues beyond Brexit had a decisive impact on the election campaign. Calls for an end to austerity were heard including the NHS, schools and tuition fees. The particular issue of the future funding for social care, and the ‘so called dementia-tax’, was a turning point in the election campaign while policing, security and foreign policy all had elevated profile in the wake of the terrible terror attacks in Manchester and London.

There were important issues raised for the devolved administrations too. The election result in Scotland puts question marks on the timing of IndyRef2 with the emergence of the Scottish Conservatives as a new force in politics not just north of the border but in Parliament too. The DUP ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the Conservatives has the potential to upset the delicate political settlement in Northern Ireland. In addition, we might yet find that the collective force of the newly elected metro mayors helps to re-boot English devolution.

Then there is the economy, which was surprisingly little debated in the election campaign and yet has a huge impact on voters, through the impact on their living standards. Although politics has less effect on the short term growth of the economy, given the UK’s dependence on trends in the global economy, nevertheless the possibility of another election and associated uncertainty would not be helpful to long term business plans. In addition, the lack of a stable majority government limits the opportunity for some much needed tax reform, a topic on which Andrew Sentance has been vociferous - and may impact on government’s room to manoeuvre to deal with the deficit.

But whether it’s Brexit and external affairs or domestic issues, the government will be stretched to deliver. As Lord O’Donnell commented recently in Civil Service World, ““Minority government is a lot more complicated than coalition.” Contentious proposals are likely to be off the table for the government’s legislative progress,with the focus moving away from areas like the triple lock and social care and back to the the bread and butter of government - delivery of better public services for less money. And the initial discussions that are taking place are just the beginning - negotiations will continue to secure support for key legislation throughout the duration of this parliament.

Although there are these many challenges, it’s still worth reflecting on some broader changes afoot. In particular, we saw an increase in overall turnout which, at 69% of the electorate, was the highest for 25 years. This increased public engagement was probably in turn driven by an increase in young people voting (with some speculation that this reached over 70% although this is still well below the high water mark of 88%) and a large number were voting for the first time, which may have contributed to a result that had not been widely predicted.

One feature of this, and probably future elections, is the way social media has made a real impact - perhaps this was the first real ‘online election’.  For instance, posts by the official Labour Party Facebook page were shared more than one million times while the most widely shared video was from the Conservative Facebook page.

There is also a record number of female MPs, now 208 up from 197 and the number of MPs educated in comprehensive schools has increased to more than half. The House of Commons has become more diverse with this year’s new intake.

So as the future shape of this government takes shape, one thing is clear: this election has raised many more questions than it has answered and puts a real spotlight on not just Brexit negotiations and the next Queen’s Speech, but delivering the world class public services that the voters want.

 

Nick C Jones | Director, Public Sector Research Centre
Profile Email | +44 (0)20 7213 1593

@Jones_NickC | Linkedin Profile

 

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