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How could a government be formed in a hung parliament?

Labour could seek a "progressive alliance", while the Tories could prevail with Northern Irish support.

By George Eaton

In 2015, the possibility of a hung parliament defined the campaign. But this time round, it was barely a footnote. Almost all of the pollsters and forecasters predicted a large Tory majority. I’m told that even that Department for Education had not considered the alternative. But in a moment as dramatic as that in 2015, the exit poll projected a hung parliament with the Conservatives 12 seats short (314) of an overall majority (326). If that proves accurate (and it may not), Theresa May could prove the shortest-lived prime minister since Bonar Law in 1923.

Read more: The Conservatives fall short of a majority

In the event of a hung parliament, the prime minister is whichever party leader can command the support of a majority of MPs. Though the largest party has the first chance to form a government, it has no guarantee of office. Second-placed parties have taken power numerous times in Europe.

Though the leaders were rarely questioned on a hung parliament (I did ask Jeremy Corbyn about the subject), they did comment on the possibility. The Conservatives refused to discuss their position (though May did warn “if I lose just six seats I will lose this election”) and warned of a “coalition of chaos” under Jeremy Corbyn.

In response, Labour revealed that it would attempt to form a minority government and seek the support of opposition parties (the stance Ed Miliband privately took in 2015). As Emily Thornberry remarked: “If we end up in a position where we’re in a minority, we will go ahead and we will put forward a Queen’s speech and a Budget. And if people want to vote for it, then good, and if they don’t want to vote for it they’re going to have to go back and speak to their constituents and explain to them why it is that we have a Tory government instead.”

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A Corbyn aide refused to confirm this stance tonight but told me: “If exit poll is correct, Labour has had the biggest increase in popular support during a campaign of any party in British political history by a massive margin.”

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Corbyn repeatedly ruled out a coalition with the SNP (who are forecast to win 34 seats) but did not reject the possibility of a confidence and supply arrangement (under which the nationalists would back the government in confidence votes and budgets). Nicola Sturgeon similarly ruled out a coalition but said that her party would form a “progressive alternative to a Conservative government”.

“Not in a coalition, I don’t envisage any formal coalitions, but on an issue-by-issue basis to put forward progressive policies and to see a progressive agenda.”

The Liberal Democrats, who ruled out a coalition with the Conservatives or Labour in their manifesto, simply told me tonight: “No coalition, no deals”.

As in the 1970s, the frequently forgotten Northern Irish parties could prove pivotal. The DUP, who may win up to 10 seats, have said they would never back a Labour government (and would likely back the Conservatives). The sole Ulster Unionist and independent Sylvia Hermon would echo this stance. Sinn Fein, who are forecast to win seven, told my colleague Patrick Maguire tonight that they would never take up their seats – even to put their long-standing ally Jeremy Corbyn in power. But the nationalist SDLP, Labour’s sister party, would back them in the Commons. The Greens, who will likely retain Caroline Lucas, and Plaid Cymru, who are forecast to win three, would also favour Corbyn. 

With Sinn Fein not sitting, and the Speaker not voting, the true figure needed for a majority is 322 seats. With Unionist support, the Tories would be able to clear that hurdle. But for both May and Corbyn, the arithmetic is painfully tight. Britain could prove ungovernable – and, as in 1974, voters may be forced back to the polls yet again.