The U.K. Faces a Hung Parliament. What Happens Now?

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Britain is getting a hung Parliament, forcing a battered Conservative Party to seek an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party in a bid to hang on to power just as Brexit negotiations loom. It’s not clear how long Prime Minister Theresa May can stay in office or how it will affect the terms of the U.K.’s divorce from the European Union.

1. What is a hung Parliament?

It’s when no single party has a majority of seats in the 650-member House of Commons. Britain’s political system requires the prime minister to have the "confidence" of Parliament, so the government of the day remains in power and enters into frenzied negotiations with other parties to prove it can form a workable solution. The alternative is to try to govern with a minority, relying on smaller parties to support legislation -- though such arrangements don’t tend to last long. The U.K. had short periods of this type of rule in the 1970s and, briefly, in 1997. The coalition deal that the Conservatives struck with the Liberal Democrats after the hung Parliament of 2010 was an exception, with the government lasting the full five-year term.

2. Can May form a government?

The Conservatives won 318 seats. An alliance with Northern Ireland’s pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, which won 10 seats, gives May a working majority. While the two parties aren’t headed for a formal coalition, May said after meeting the queen that she’ll try to govern with DUP support. It’s worth remembering that the magic number to get a majority isn’t clear cut: For this purpose, the total number of seats is less than 650, since the speaker and deputy speakers don’t vote and Sinn Fein, an Irish Republican party that won seven seats, boycotts Parliament. That pushes the number needed for a working majority below 326.

Read more: May digs in as U.K. premier amid election debacle turmoil

3. Will May resign?

May immediately faced calls to step down, though some in her party said the priority should be maintaining stability. She called the snap election in a bid to strengthen her hand on Brexit and made the campaign all about her personal leadership. Even before election night, senior Tories were privately furious about the way the campaign was managed. The Conservatives are traditionally more ruthless than the Labour Party in getting rid of underperforming leaders, and get less bogged down by internal party democracy when choosing the replacement. Still, the BBC and Sky News reported that May had no plans to resign.

4. Who are the leading candidates to replace her?

Amber Rudd, the home secretary, saw her profile enhanced during the campaign. She stood in for May in a key televised election debate and was forced into the limelight by the recent Manchester and London terrorist attacks. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, one of the most popular Tory politicians, was the figurehead of the Brexit campaign last year and stopped short of making a leadership bid in the aftermath. Bookmakers now give him improved odds of becoming prime minister. Other potential candidates are Brexit Secretary David Davis, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and Defense Secretary Michael Fallon.

Read more: Who could be the new Conservative leader?

5. What could this mean for Brexit?

May indicated after meeting the queen that she plans to start Brexit negotiations on schedule on June 19. But it remains to be seen if she can do that now that she doesn’t have a majority. More planning may be needed, eating into the time available to strike a deal before Britain leaves the EU in March 2019. The election result could be interpreted as a call from voters to soften Brexit, forcing the government to do more to safeguard access to the single market for goods and services. Still, Conservative lawmakers who sought the hardest of Brexits may well hold outsize influence in the minority government. That would leave May -- or her successor -- with less scope to cut deals with the EU in return for a trade accord or post-Brexit transitional arrangement.

Read more: Hard Brexit in doubt as U.K. voters reject May’s strategy

6. What does May do now?

First, she needs to get through the weekend. Few prominent Tories declared full-throated support for her in the election’s immediate aftermath, and her position will start to look vulnerable if any of them refuse to serve in her cabinet or publicly call on her to resign. The next big test will be whether the government can pass its legislative agenda with the help of the DUP after the Queen’s Speech on June 19 when Parliament reconvenes.

7. What might the Tories need to give the DUP?

As well as making the Irish border an even higher priority in Brexit talks, the DUP could make other demands on the Tories in order to lend them their 10 votes. The party wants more defense spending, an increase in the minimum wage, reductions to household energy bills and protections for pensions, according to its manifesto. The party’s view on Brexit could also come into play if the Conservatives end up dependent on them to govern. The DUP wants a “comprehensive free trade and customs agreement,” and a “frictionless border” with the Irish Republic.

Read more: Northern Irish party of 10 lawmakers holds sway over Brexit

8. What does it mean for keeping the U.K. together?

The Scottish National Party has ceded ground, with some high-profile losses, even as it still has a clear majority of Scotland’s seats. While the result might undermine its push for another independence referendum, the party has the potential to play a greater role in Westminster -- either as part of a bloc opposing a weakened Conservative government or conceivably propping up a new leadership.

Read more: Scottish nationalists lose support in vote that split nation

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg infographic showing the election results.
  • That YouGov non-poll actually got it right, writes Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky.
  • Read the full transcript of the TOPLive blog here.
  • The BBC explains what happens when no party wins a majority.
  • The House of Commons website on the mechanics and history of a hung Parliament.
  • A Parliament briefing paper on hung Parliaments.
  • A Q&A explainer on the problems with Britain’s election polls.

— With assistance by Richard Partington

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