I’ve been irritated by the apparent failure of BBC journalists, in questions put to both the Liberal Democrats and the SNP, to understand what a minority government is or how it works. It’s not difficult: we’ve got a minority government at the moment, we’ve had minority governments before (e.g. under Wilson in 1974) and the SNP is technically a minority government in Scotland. The 2010 Coalition was not a minority government; it had a majority.
Every question which asks minority parties, “who would you support for Prime Minister?”, is irrelevant. The whole point about minority governments is that they don’t have majority support. All that has to happen is that there is not actually a vote of no confidence – that minority parties abstain.
In principle, a minority government should work by selecting policies or legislation which can command support – policies that will get through Parliament. This approach has been undermined to some degree by the present Conservative administration’s refusal to compromise or act as if is in a minority, but there’s nothing wrong with the principle; the current government has simply demonstrated, through repeated losses, how ridiculous it is to ignore the parliamentary numbers. This election has been called because of the government’s refusal to compromise – not on the Withdrawal Agreement, which had reached a second reading, but on the sweeping authoritarian powers (“Henry VIII” powers, in the jargon) that they were determined to enact. Any majority government which took that position would represent an existential threat to our democracy.
A minority government is not a bad thing; it can be a good one. Lacking a majority forces governments to common ground or compromise, and in our present predicament those are positions devoutly to be wished. Unfortunately, no-one can actually vote for a minority government; it’s not on the ballot. All you can do is to vote for a minority party, in the assurance that if there are enough minority parties, there won’t be a majority government. And that promises a better outcome than any prospective majority government is likely to offer.