Theresa May’s election season was so stunningly inept – calling a snap poll to increase her majority, only to disastrously bungle her campaign and end up in minority government – that it’s easy to think it must be unprecedented.
Political commentators have been scrambling to research the two elections of 1974 and the Labour government that clung to power for the five years that followed. But there is a more striking parallel to a minority government, though a little further from home – the Australian Labor government led by Julia Gillard from 2010 to 2013.
Gillard, like Theresa May, did not become prime minister after an election. She was installed by her own party in June 2010, and immediately enjoyed a polling honeymoon.
Her opponent was Tony Abbott, who had become leader of the centre-right Liberal Party after it revolted against his more centrist predecessor over climate change policy. A shock winner in the leadership contest, Abbott was deeply unpopular with the public, and the government moved to capitalise. The day after she announced an August election, Gillard held a 30-point lead over Abbott on the crucial question of who would make a better prime minister.
Then things went sour for the Labor Party. PM Gillard struggled on the campaign trail against a relentless opposition campaign (although Abbott was less about “kinder, gentler politics” and more outright sexism).
Internal disunity dogged her party through a series of damaging leaks, almost universally attributed to Kevin Rudd (who Gillard had deposed as prime minister), and when the votes were tallied on 21 August 2010, the government had lost 11 seats and ended up tied with 72 MPs: the same number as the opposition, and four short of a majority. Gillard clung on, negotiating confidence-and-supply deals with four independent MPs in order to cobble together a governing majority.
This eerie precursor of today’s hung parliament has three principal lessons to teach us.
First, rickety-looking minority government arrangements tend to be a lot more stable than you might expect. Two of the independents who propped up Gillard’s government, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, represented rural, typically conservative constituencies. They were not natural partners of a Labor government, but they saw an opportunity to win major commitments for regional investment.
Once an MP is in a deal like this, it rarely makes sense to leave it while the milk and honey flows – and once the deal has gone bad, it’s too late to pull out without taking some of the blame.
Andrew Wilkie, another independent who did a deal with Gillard for funding to a local hospital and an anti-gambling package, pulled his support in January 2012, but in name only. He didn’t actually want to force Labor out of power and never voted in favour of a no-confidence motion.
The Democratic Unionist Party will no doubt try to play hardball with May, but once a deal is done there will be little incentive for them to bail out. That conclusion is reinforced by the second lesson: that minority government can end surprisingly badly for its junior partners.
Oakeshott and Windsor succeeded in directing government funding towards education and communications infrastructure in rural Australia for three years.
But the seemingly unchangeable fact is that voters in majoritarian Westminster democracies – unlike those in Europe – detest the idea of minority government. They’re used to one party being in charge, so that the daily news is not a constant spectacle of horse-trading and drama about whether the government will be able to get anything done.
Anyone seen to be participating in the spectacle gets tainted by it, and that black mark outweighs any credit for making things better than they might otherwise have turned out. Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems were tanked by even a relatively stable coalition arrangement. By the time of the 2013 election, Oakeshott and Windsor were so bruised by their ties to the government that neither stood for re-election.
This is a real risk for the DUP. Northern Ireland will no doubt do well out of whatever deal Arlene Foster strikes, but a party that used to mock the rival Ulster Unionists for being too close to the Tories is playing with fire by yoking itself to their fortunes.
The party now has more Westminster MPs than ever before, a high-water mark that will be very hard to defend after what will be a tumultuous few years of government. That gives the DUP even more reason to postpone the next election – it doesn’t mean it can avoid judgement when it eventually comes.
It’s the third lesson, however, that should most worry Theresa May. It is very difficult for a prime minister to survive minority government. It is, again, an unpopular set-up, which the PM is the public face of. Meanwhile, MPs feel simultaneously nervous about their fate and empowered to be demanding. That’s a combination tailored to produce unrest and schemes against the leader.
Gillard, after almost immediately slumping in the polls, headed to massive defeat at the next election, as well as facing three leadership challenges in her three years as prime minister. She was able to face the first two down only because of rock-solid support in her parliamentary party, which almost unanimously hated her challenger, Rudd. Labor colleagues came to Gillard’s defence on the record, calling Rudd, their former prime minister, “dysfunctional” and “a psychopath”.
Theresa May does not, to say the least, have this kind of insulation against her rivals in the Conservative Party. She came to the leadership in an unreflective coronation, and her potential rivals are quite popular.
Her poll slump is already happening and she is facing intense criticism from within. Even Gillard eventually succumbed – with an election looming – to the very same Kevin Rudd whom a bevy of ministers had savaged just a few months earlier. That’s bad news for May – and good news for any blond-haired challengers who fancy themselves as popular with the public, and have been eyeing the prime ministership for years. Not that the Tories have any of those.