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3 July 2017updated 05 Jul 2017 7:36am

History suggests an early election. Economics points the other way

The lifespan of governments without a majority is small. The lifespan of governments fearing a battering from the voters, however, is long. 

By Stephen Bush

How long will this parliament last? That’s the question that, for obvious reasons, MPs on all sides are asking themselves.

Most Conservative MPs I speak to expect the parliament to run for a short time before a re-run. The historical precedents are limited, but they suggest they are right. Governments without a parliamentary majority tend not to last very long.

Towards the end of the 1992-7 parliament, John Major’s government lost its majority due to by-elections and defections, and from 8 December 1996 to its rout in May 1997, Major governed without a majority.

In February 1974, Labour took office without a majority – they were short by 18. Harold Wilson governed for seven months until going to the country again in October 1974, when he got a narrow majority of three.

That majority held up until March 1977, when the loss of Birmingham Stetchford in a by-election deprived the party of its working majority. The government did a deal with the Liberal Party which kept them afloat until Labour dissolved it in September 1978, in anticipation of a snap election. James Callaghan, who had by that time replaced Wilson as Prime Minister, elected not to go for an autumn contest and the government held together as a minority administration until May 1979.

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So the history of minority government suggests that this one won’t last much more than seven months.

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The similarities between the election of February 1974 and June 2017 are eerie. A Conservative prime minister called an election earlier than they needed to gain support against external “enemies”: in Ted Heath’s case, the trade unions, in Theresa May’s case, the European Union and Remain-supporting MPs in parliament. Labour, meanwhile, had moved decisively to the left since losing office, after party members voted for a radical agenda that had few supporters inside the parliamentary Labour Party.

Come the election, Labour made remarkable gains, though. Again, as in 2017, the very bad result in 1970 meant that Labour was unable to win in the course of one parliament. (The 1970 and 2015 parallels are fun, too: in both cases, the Conservative win surprised most people, and the small Tory majority belied how bad the result was for Labour.)

But crucially, they made enough gains to force Heath out of office. The party was badly split and the right and the left continued to fight at the grassroots and on the party’s ruling executive, but Labour had the wind at its back. Indeed, when Wilson went to the country in October 1974, he hoped for a bigger majority than just three.

The big difference now is that the Conservative Party in general and Theresa May in particular do not feel that they have the wind at their backs – quite the reverse, in fact. They feel they are holding onto power by the fingernails. That the support of the DUP means that the government will be comfortable on life-or-death votes (limited, thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, to explicit votes of no confidence and the Queen’s Speech) even though it will likely find its day-to-day existence extremely uncomfortable.

The economics, too, are considerably more fraught. The economic indicators all look distinctively pre-recessional. The slowdown in output in manufacturing and construction, the latter of which tends to be an early indicator of sickness or health in the British economy, both suggest that the United Kingdom is heading for still slower growth or a full-blown recession, as does the drop in activity in the retail sector.

The prospect of going to the country again, with the economy in or near recession and Labour largely united is not one that appeals to most Conservatives. So while history narrowly favours an early election, economics suggests that they will end up letting this parliament run on, in the hope that things improve or that something turns up to dampen public support for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.

(That, incidentally, is what most veteran Labour MPs expect. They point to their party’s survival in the last years of Gordon Brown’s government as a testament to the power that the prospect of imminent annihilation has on a party’s mind.)