Minority Governments: History suggests Theresa May will be toppled (and quickly)

Minority Governments - why history doesn't reflect well on Theresa May's chances

The Prime Minister appears to be forming a minority government off the back of the election results

Monday, June 12, 2017

Following Thursday's election nightmare, Theresa May seems to have only one option: the creation of a minority government, propped up by the Democratic Unionists.

Critics should note that this isn't a particularly unusual. In fact, over the last 100 years Britain has seen regular minority governments, primarily during the tension-wracked years of the 1920s and 1970s.

Nonetheless, history suggests Theresa May's minority won't last. And, when it comes down, it'll come down with a fearsome crash.

Of the four minority governments Britain has seen over the past century, the longest-lasting, by some distance, was James Callaghan's Labour administration which held power between 1976 and 1979. The other examples - Ramsay MacDonald's of 1924, Harold Wilson's of 1974 and John Major's of 1996-97 - lasted only a few months and were bogged down by in-fighting. 

Despite their typically short lifepsan, Minority governments tend to see more than their fair share of turmoil. MacDonald's Labour government in 1924, for example, was thrown into chaos by the 'Zinoviev letter', a document published by The Daily Mail which purportedly showed the British Labour party plotting hard-line Communist revolution (some things don't change then). Callaghan's Labour regime was brought down by the Winter of Discontent, while Major's Tories saw themselves apart over Europe (again, awfully familiar). 

Most worryingly for May and her supporters, minority governments generally end in landslide election defeat: MacDonald, Callaghan and Major all got blown away at the polls. In the latter two cases, the losing parties were locked out of government for over 10 years. The only outlier is Wilson, who managed to turn a minority into a majority at the end of 1974. But his margin of triumph was only three seats, and Labour were soon dragged back into the cloying morass of minority rule by a string of by-election defeats.

Even more damningly for the current Prime Minister, all of the previous minority governments were forged against mitigating circumstances - something which can't be said about the current mess. Major had previously won an election before his government slipped into majority, so he had some credit in the bank; Callaghan didn't fight an election until that crushing defeat of 1979, so his minority administration couldn't be attributed to disaster at the ballot box. Wilson and MacDonald both won power from the Tories; their victories in the elections of 1923 and 1974 may have been wafer-thin and practically unsustainable, but at least they were seizing power from their rivals, rather than squandering their own advantages.

In fact the only situation which can really be compared to May's is that of Stanley Baldwin in 1923. Like May, Baldwin was new to No 10 and wanted to call an election to ratify his regime. In another parallel, he wanted to gain public support for a major international policy: in May's case it was hard Brexit, in Baldwin's it was tariff reform. Both times they frittered away comfortable Tory majorities and, while emerging with the biggest individual share of the vote, fell short of an overall victory.

Like May, Baldwin tried to carry on - but he lost a vote of confidence in 1924, just a few weeks after that disastrous election. Labour, who had only been on the scene for a couple of decades and were considered wild and threatening by many, governed for just nine months, before MacDonald was beaten in the Commons and the Tories, still led by Baldwin, achieved a majority of 209 in the ensuing election.

Could May learn a lesson from history here? Rather than form a lame-duck government, might it be better for her to stand aside and let the radical socialists try to stitch together their own minority administration (and put their 'money tree' manifesto promises to the test)?

Given the backdrop of Brexit, it seems inconceivable that May will do this. But, given the unstoried history of minority governments, it might just be the best long-term bet for the embattled Prime Minister, and her party.