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The 2017 UK general election and possible Conservatives/DUP arrangements

On Thursday 8 June 2017 the United Kingdom went to the polls for the third time in as many years.

Prime Minister Theresa May, who assumed the prime ministership in July 2016 following the resignation of David Cameron in the wake of the Brexit referendum, called the election two years into the five year term. At the time she called the snap election, May’s Conservative Party held a 17 seat majority in the 650 seat House of Commons.

Polls at the time placed the Conservatives up to 21 points ahead of Labour, and it was expected that the Conservatives would increase their parliamentary majority in order to help pass Brexit-related legislation. Under the Fixed-term Parliament Act 2011, introduced by May’s predecessor David Cameron as part of his deal to form a minority government with the Liberal Democrats following the 2010 General Election, an election prior to 7 May 2020 required the support of two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons.

Between the Conservatives’ strong initial lead in the polls and the polarising leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who was widely believed to be too left-wing to be competitive, May’s calling of a snap election led to predictions of an electoral wipe-out for Labour. However the performance of both May and Corbyn on the hustings, and the reception of the Conservatives' Manifesto, saw the gap in polling rapidly narrow as the election approached.

Following the failure of opinion polls to accurately predict either the 2015 general election or the Brexit referendum result, considerable attention focused on the polls. The final pre-election polls of each of the major pollsters showed everything from a 3 point Labour lead to a 13 point Conservative lead.

The first serious indicator that the Conservatives might be in trouble came from the exit polls, which are run for the BBC, ITV and Sky. Released on 8 June at 10pm UK time, as soon as the polls closed, the exit polls predicted a hung parliament, with the Conservatives 12 seats short of a majority on 314 seats and Labour on 266 seats.

The final results were:

Party Seats Seat Swing Votes (%) Vote Swing
Conservative 318 -13 42.4 5.5
Labour 262 30 40.0 9.5
Scottish National Party 35 -21 3.0 -1.7
Liberal Democrat 12 4 7.4 -0.5
Democratic Unionist Party 10 2 0.9 0.3
Sinn Fein 7 3 0.7 0.2
Plaid Cymru 4 1 0.5 -0.1
Green Party 1 0 1.6 -2.1
UKIP 0 -1 1.8 -10.8
Others 1 0 0.6 0.3

Post-election analysis indicated that there was a strong age effect associated with the vote, with young people strongly favouring Labour and an increased youth turnout compared to 2015: 66.4 per cent of people between 18 and 24 voted, as against 43 per cent in 2015, and two thirds of this cohort voted Labour, as did over half of the 25-34 bracket.

In terms of votes cast, the Conservative’s performance was not bad, securing the same proportion of the total votes as 1983 when Margaret Thatcher formed government with a majority of 144. However, in 2017 Labour performed significantly better, and the results suggested a return to two-party politics (albeit in the context of a hung parliament).

The Scottish National Party (SNP) experienced a setback. Although it won all but three of the seats in Scotland in 2015, on a 50 per cent share of the vote, the SNP share this year was down to 37 per cent of votes cast, with the result that the SNP lost 21 seats to the benefit of Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. It appears that the SNP’s plan for another referendum on independence from the UK did not go down well with some voters (although it remains the largest party in Scotland). SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has said that she will reflect on this point and it now seems likely that there will not be another independence referendum in the near future.

The United Kingdom Independence Party’s (UKIP) vote collapsed. This was not unexpected, as the party’s main policy—leaving the EU—is now in effect. More surprising was that a significant proportion of UKIP 2015 voters went to Labour in 2017; it had been assumed that these votes would go to the hard-Brexit supporting Conservatives.

The new government

The day after the election Theresa May visited the Queen and announced her intention to form government with the support of the 10 MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland. The socially conservative DUP are reportedly guaranteeing supply and confidence, but will not enter into a formal coalition with the Conservatives. However the details of any deal are not yet public, with the Government having confirmed that Parliament to commence with the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday 21 June, but that there was ‘no deadline’ for the deal to be completed, and the Queen’s Speech might happen without a DUP deal being in place.

Some commentary is suggesting that the Conservatives’ alliance with the DUP in Westminster might complicate the Northern Ireland peace process.  It is also likely that governing with such a slim majority will be challenging; however another early election is unlikely. May’s leadership of the Conservatives does not currently appear to be in danger.

The newly elected parliament has a record number of women (208, or 32 per cent), 15 Muslim MPs, the first female Sikh MP, and 45 openly LGBT MPs.

Future directions

It is still too early to fully understand the implications of this surprise result. However, some likely themes are emerging:

The ‘hard Brexit’ (leaving the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, and prioritising immigration control above other issues) which the Conservatives had been pursuing is now possibly less likely. This is not least because the DUP (which campaigned for Brexit in 2016) do not want a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which would be a possible consequence of leaving the Customs Union. There are also suggestions that the Brexit negotiations need to be more collegiate, with possibly some form of cross-party group supporting them.

Whatever happens, the UK will be under increasing time pressure: two-and-a-half months have passed since the UK triggered article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, setting in motion the two year process for negotiations of the UK’s departure. These negotiations started formally on June 19.