Cast your minds back a month. The Conservatives appeared on course for a large majority, the Labour Party were under pressure in their heartlands and Northern Ireland barely registered on the electorate's radar. How things have changed! Two weeks ago, the General Election produced a hung parliament, a resurgent Labour Party and a Conservative Party reliant on agreeing a “confidence and supply” deal with Northern Irish DUP to stay in office. This week even that deal looks shaky – with no agreement reached and the DUP spokesperson last night saying talks with Number 10 we “not going as they'd expected. Number ten seemed chaotic."
What does a hung parliament mean?
A hung parliament creates several problems for the governing party. Passing bills and official legislation requires a unified political party with no room for rebels. Back-benchers have greater power knowing their votes are essential to maintaining control in the House of Commons. Greater scrutiny is also placed on the various parliamentary mechanisms which can ‘trip-up’ or defeat controversial Bills. As we discuss in a blog on the Queen’s Speech this has already resulted in a watering down of the Government's legislative proposals.
EVEL nerds will rule supreme
This brings us onto an oft-overlooked but significant Act passed by the last government. On the 22nd October 2015, the UK Parliament voted in favour of ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) by a margin of 312 votes to 270.
This legislation enables the Speaker to declare all or part of a bill as English, or English and Welsh, as for example the previous parliament did with the Housing and Planning Bill. These changes give increased powers to English and Welsh MPs and change the legislative process, adding new stages for those MPs only. Crucially no Bill or amendment can continue to a third reading in the House of Commons without support from a majority of English MPs, or English-Welsh MPs. Why does this relative obscurity matter? Because at present, Theresa May’s Conservatives have a majority of 61 in England and 37 in England and Wales, significantly more comfortable than her working majority of 13 - assuming a deal with the DUP is agreed.
Changes made by the Lords (more on that here) go back to the House of Commons, but require a double majority to become law. A double majority means both a majority of all MPs, and of England or English and Welsh MPs.
EVEL changes disproportionately benefit the Conservative Party who are traditionally stronger in these regions. The majority of the Conservative Party in England and Wales substantially increased in both 2015 and 2017.
What does this mean for the stability of government?
Much focus has been placed on the DUP, but EVEL legislation circumnavigates the need for their support on delegated legislation. This includes health and social care, housing, education, local government, agriculture, pensions, the environment, and equal opportunities - depending on whether you are talking Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
The DUP’s opinion on this specific mechanism is potentially significant. The DUP opposed the EVEL legislation when brought before Parliament amid fears that the new legislation would weaken the unity of the United Kingdom. There have been no clear signs that this position has changed.
As discussions between Number 10 and the DUP continue it may be too soon to say what this means but the consequences could be far-reaching. The Government remains vulnerable to very small rebellions, not just from their own side but also from the DUP. EVEL legislation does give a slight advantage on some issues but without a strong working relationship with the DUP, it is one that they will not be able to exploit.
With all the Bills in today's Queen's Speech, the Conservative Party may find themselves reliant on a small band of MPs to get anything through the House of Commons in the next two years.