General election: What’s going on with UK politics?

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If you’re struggling to understand why 10 MPs from Northern Ireland appear to be keeping Theresa May as prime minister of the entire United Kingdom, you’re not alone.

With talk of resignations, hung parliaments, and maybe even another election, there’s plenty going on.

Here’s a brief guide to current events following the surprise UK election result.

The election losers are acting like they won

The Conservatives won the election. They are the largest party with the most seats – 318. But the opposition Labour party, which lost the election with just 262 seats, is delighted.

Why? Because the election is widely being seen as a catastrophe for sitting prime minister Theresa May.

She did not need to call this election – it was not due until 2020. But she thought she saw political weakness in the Labour party, due to a perceived division between different factions in the party.

Instead, her party lost 13 seats (Labour gained 30), resulting in what Brits call a “hung parliament”. Now she needs to rely on other parties – in this case, the Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP – to govern.

Who are the DUP, and what do they stand for?

The prime minister and her party are currently hashing out a deal with the DUP to stay in power.

The DUP is a Northern Ireland party, which won 10 seats in the election. Those seats are the key to Theresa May forming a government.

But the deal is not without its problems.

The DUP are hard-line unionists – set against a united independent Ireland, and dedicated to preserving Northern Ireland as part of the UK (the rest of Ireland is an independent republic).

The founder of the DUP, Rev Ian Paisley, was a fundamentalist Protestant preacher. While the party isn’t as religious as it was in the 1970s, it still opposes same-sex marriage and is anti-abortion. One MP is a climate change denier, and another is a creationist.

Those policies are not widely shared by other UK politicians.

So why did the Conservatives choose the DUP?

In short, most other parties have ruled out working with the Conservatives, so Theresa May has little choice.

She needs to bring in another eight seats to get over the 326-vote magic number needed to pass laws in parliament.

The Scottish National Party (35 seats) and Liberal Democrats (12 seats) both ruled out working with the Conservatives – the SNP even said it would form a coalition just to keep them out of government if possible. Sinn Féin, an Irish republican party, don’t take their Westminster seats (and have not done so for more than 100 years).

The DUP is the only viable option.

Why can’t the two large parties work together?

Labour and the Conservatives are political rivals, so it’s extremely unlikely that they would work together. Their ideologies lean to different sides of the political spectrum, and they have traditionally opposed one another on major spending and social issues.

A national united government is not impossible – but it last happened in World War Two, with Winston Churchill’s war ministry.

Is Mrs May forming a coalition or a minority government, and what’s the difference?

To pass laws, all you need is a majority of votes cast on that specific piece of legislation. But to guarantee anything, you need a stable 326 seats (half the parliament’s 650, plus one more).

Because of the UK election system, it’s very common for one party to have more than half of the seats, and form a government all by itself.

But now, the prime minister can’t do this. That leaves her with two options:

  • A coalition government is one in which the parties agree a shared agenda and govern as a single cohesive unit. Due to the gap between the Conservatives and the DUP, this is an unlikely option
  • A minority government, on the other hand, means that another party agrees to back the government when necessary. It’s thought the DUP will enter into what’s called a “confidence and supply” agreement – backing the prime minister if a no confidence motion is called, and supporting the government’s budget.

But either way, the Conservatives’ lead is tiny – just a few seats. All it would take is a handful of MPs to rebel on a controversial vote – say, school or healthcare funding – and the government would be unable to pass legislation.

How long has she got? What’s a Queen’s Speech?

The first chance to make a deal is on 13 June, when parliament sits for the first time since the election.

Then there’s the Queen’s speech – a UK tradition for the state opening of a new parliament. The speech gives details of the government’s agenda for the year, and had been due on 19 June but has now been delayed.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth waits to read the Queen's Speech to lawmakers in the House of Lords, next to Prince Philip, during the State Opening of Parliament in central London May 9, 2012.

But here’s the thing – although the Queen reads the speech out loud for the ceremony, it’s written by the government. So everything has to be agreed and planned before then.

The Queen leaves, and the politicians debate the plan, and the House of Commons takes a vote on it. If things get to this stage, it’s incredibly unlikely the speech would fail a vote – it’s largely symbolic.

Is there any chance of a Labour government?

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn says it’s not over yet, but he can only be prime minister if Labour form a government.

That’s unlikely with the current numbers. Even if Labour gets the support of other parties, it cannot form a majority – not even the narrow, insecure one the Conservatives can.

Labour could, of course, try to form a minority government, with all the associated difficulties.

Many people think their best chance could lie in another election.

Another election?

There is already talk of a another election.

Theoretically, there’s a fixed term to this parliament, and it shouldn’t end until 2022.

But if no-one can form a working government, the UK’s rules allow another election to be called. If that happens, expect both sides to campaign hard for seats they narrowly lost, and claim that more votes for them will offer the security that didn’t manifest the first time around.

How does a minority government fail or collapse?

A lot of the political commentary is about how unstable a minority government can be.

That’s because, without a majority, a government cannot guarantee confidence in itself.

Basically, to force an election, MPs from the other parties can move a motion in the House of Commons which says: “That this House has no confidence in HM Government” (HM, of course, being Her Majesty’s Government).

If that motion passes, negotiations begin all over again to form another government. If that can’t be done in two weeks – another election is called.

What does all this mean for Brexit?

It’s… a little complicated.

The DUP is definitely pro-Brexit. They were the biggest sceptics on the EU – at least, until the UK Independence Party emerged.

But because of their staunch unionist approach, the party doesn’t want any “special deals” done between the EU and Northern Ireland. They want to be “special” or in any way separate from the UK.

That’s complicated because the Republic of Ireland, to the south, is an EU member and will remain so. Which means there could be a customs or migration border – something both sides want to avoid. The DUP says it wants the border to be as “seamless and frictionless” as possible.

But it’s a complicated issue no matter who is negotiating it.