The 2017 Election Arithmetic and its consequences 

The hung parliament resulting from yesterday’s UK election presents us all with some unfamiliar challenges.

First, the basic numbers:

Total Commons seats 650, -7 Sinn Fein, -4 Speaker & 3 Dep. Speakers = 639, x 1/2 + 1 = 320 (minimum for an overall majority).
Forecast: Con 319 + 10 DUP = 329. Overall majority for both combined: 9
Lab 261 + SNP 35 + Libdem 12 + Others (Green, Plaid, indep) 13 = 321 (overall majority for all combined of 1).  If, as a comment on LabourList has suggested, the 13 ‘others’ include the 7 Sinn Fein MPs, who don’t vote, then any Labour-led ‘progressive alliance’ would fall short of an overall majority.  The figure of 13 ‘Others’ is taken from the BBC News website.

[The total number of seats in the house of commons is 650. But the 7 Sinn Fein members do not take their seats and the Speaker and 3 Deputy Speakers do not vote. This leaves 639 voting MPs, meaning that a minimum of 321 (half of 639 plus 1) are needed for an overall majority.]

If I have missed something in this calculation, or if my calculator has miscalculated the figures, I hope someone will correct me!

If the DUP agrees to support a continuing Conservative government, they will have 329 seats between them, a combined overall majority of 9.  If all the other left-of-centre parties were to agree to give conditional “confidence and supply” support to a minority Labour government, that informal ‘progressive alliance’ (not a coalition) would have at most 321 seats, an overall majority of just 1.  If the 321 includes 7 Sinn Fein non-voters, any ‘progressive alliance’ would fall short of an overall majority.

The arithmetic seems to point to a continuing Conservative government supported in major votes by the DUP – possibly on condition that Theresa May is replaced by a new Conservative prime minister (who need not be a new Conservative party leader, incidentally), although this seems unlikely.  The Conservatives can legitimately claim the right to continue in office as easily the biggest single party (with 58 more seats than Labour) and with a good prospect of an overall majority of, probably, 9 seats if supported by the DUP, 8 seats or more ahead of a Labour-led progressive alliance with an overall majority of only 1, if that.  But either minority government would be unlikely to survive for very long with such small majorities, which would imply an unavoidable second general election within a few months, or else the formation of a new more broadly based government under a new prime minister without an election, a scenario considered further below.  The implications of either outcome for the conduct of the Brexit negotiations are dire.

In a continental European election a result like this would probably lead to the formation of a “Grand Coalition” government including both Conservatives and Labour.  There might be a good theoretical case for just such a National Government specifically to manage the Brexit negotiations.  But the history of national governments in Britain is not a happy one (older Labour people will remember the fate of Ramsay MacDonald) and it is doubtful whether Corbyn’s Labour and Mrs May’s Tories have enough in common, even just on Brexit, to be able to collaborate in a coalition government together.

There remains the puzzle of why Mrs May thinks it necessary to go to the Palace today, in the BBC’s words “to seek the Queen’s permission to form a government”.  The formal position is that as the incumbent prime minister heading a still functioning government Mrs May has no need for anyone’s permission, even the Queen’s, to reshuffle her government, to present her programme for government in a Queen’s Speech when parliament meets on Monday week, and there to seek a vote of confidence for it in the house of commons. If she were to lose that vote despite the probable support of the DUP, then, and only then, would she have to resign.  The Queen’s advisers would then need to decide whether she should ask Jeremy Corbyn to form a minority government, with its questionable ability to muster a majority in the Commons, or instead to dissolve parliament forthwith and call a fresh election – with the real possibility that the result would be the same, and with worrying implications for the Brexit negotiations. Another, perhaps likelier, option would be to call on a Tory MP, preferably one widely respected across all the parties, to try to form a new and more broadly-based government that might command the confidence of a majority in the house of commons, if only to manage the Brexit negotiations as a caretaker government. Remember that the prime minister need not be the leader of his or her party.  The only qualification required is the command of the confidence of a majority in the house of commons.

Jeremy Corbyn’s case for having an opportunity to try to form a government able to command the support of a majority in the house of commons in the event of Mrs May failing to do so would have been greatly strengthened if he had been actively seeking the conditional support for a minority Labour government, on a “confidence and supply” basis, of the other progressive parties before the election.  But Labour’s stubborn tribalism prevented that, and even now both Corbyn and McDonnell are ruling out even any informal “deal” with other parties, instead simply challenging them to bring down a minority Labour government and having to justify to the electorate the likely consequences of bringing about such a constitutional impasse.

We are living in interesting times!

a.m. 9 June 2017

Note:  This is an edited version of a post on LabourList at also see my clarifying comment on that post at



6 Responses

  1. Rob says:

    With the arithmetic as it stands it would be almost impossible for labour to have stitched together a “confidence and supply” deal. And after all of the gloomy forecasts this is the best we could have hoped for and severely clipped Mays inept wings. Anyhow, like it or not, we have to take hats off to Jeremy for mounting an unexpectedly superb campaign.

  2. David Campbell says:

    But for the Conservative resurgence in Scotland, Labour would almost certainly have been able to form a minority government. But they have, of course,  also been cheated by the electoral system. If the Westminster parties had seats in proportion to votes cast, Corbyn would have announced his key cabinet appointments by now.

    In a sane world we would be going for a Grand Coalition, with a radically different agenda for Europe. Meanwhile, Scotland’s electorate haven’t done a bad job. They’ve administered a setback to the SNP; and Ruth Davidson’s MPs should add a healthy pro-Europe ballast to the Conservative Parliamentary Party. Their come-back is also good for Scotland. We are a country with a traditionally large conservative constituency (conservative with a small ‘c’). It is high time these voters had a party in which they can feel at home, without being excoriated as “toxic.” That gybe – still much loved by Labour and the SNP – is now becoming dangerously counterproductive.

    There is more than a remote possibility that the whole Brexit process will now prove unworkable. To be really optimisitic, it might have to be abandoned altogether. Views, please, Brian.

  3. Phil says:

    Total Commons seats 650, -7 Sinn Fein, -4 Speaker & 3 Dep. Speakers = 639, x 1/2 + 1 = 320 (minimum for an overall majority).

    Fine so far.

    Forecast: Con 319 + 10 DUP = 329. Overall majority for both combined: 9

    The actual result – with Labour taking Kensington(!) – gives the Tories 318. However, by convention two of the four (Deputy) Speakers would be appointed from the Conservatives, giving 316 – or 326 with the DUP.

    Lab 261 + SNP 35 + Libdem 12 + Others (Green, Plaid, indep) 13 = 321 (overall majority for all combined of 1).

    That’s 262 for Labour, reduced to 260 for (Deputy) Speakers. Also, the ‘others’ are 1 Green, 4 Plaid Cymru, 1 independent Unionist… and 7 Sinn Fein, who we’ve already discounted. So the maximum Labour-led bloc is 260+35+12+6 = 313, some way short of the 320 we need.

    That said, it’s really hard to imagine either the DUP or the Tories themselves having the unity and discipline to keep a minority government going for long – and, as you say, any alliance with the DUP is a massive obstacle to the resumption of power-sharing in NI. But this government, despite its fondness for British nationalism, doesn’t seem to care about what goes on beyond the borders of England.

    It’s a great result, but I’m afraid it’s one we’re going to be called on to equal or better, sooner rather than later.

  4. sentinel says:

    The most pressing matter is surely Brexit, and in particular the forthcoming negotiations. A hard Brexit now seems to be precluded. Therefore, we need a PM who can command a majority of the House of Commons on a soft Brexit. Ideally the person should have held great offices of state and be respected on both sides of the House. Step forward Ken Clarke.

  5. Acilius says:

    One question we might ask is, which members of parliament want a new election this year? If we assume that all 318 Tories want this parliament to last as long as possible, and that the 7 Sinn Fein MPs will not take their seats under any circumstances, that leaves us only 4 members short of the number needed to prevent an early dissolution. DUP might not be the logical place to find those 4. If there is another election this year, they will likely keep all of their current seats and may well gain Fermanagh and South Tyrone, consolidating their position as the one and only political voice for their community. The more time passes before the next election, the more likely their leaders are to be caught with their hands in the till, costing them seats and opening a door to electoral success by independent Unionists and perhaps a revival of the UUP under a new name.

  6. Abhinav says:

    If there is another election this year, they will likely keep all of their current seats and may well gain Fermanagh and South Tyrone, consolidating their position as the one and only political voice for their community.