Whatever the rebels decide, it is clear that the Government can no longer rely upon their support. For all effective purposes, therefore, there is a hung parliament in which support for government legislation cannot be guaranteed but has to be negotiatedanew for each item.
How long can such a parliament last? There have been four hung parliaments in Britain since 1918. The first, the Labour minority government in 1924, lasted for nine uneasy months to be defeated in the general election of October 1924; the second, betwee n 1929 and 1931, was blown out of office by a financial crisis that caused the formation of the National Government.
The third minority government, led by Harold Wilson, survived for just over seven months from March 1974, to gain an overall majority of three in the October 1974 general election. By April 1976, however, this majority had been whittled away, and James Callaghan, who became Prime Minister in that month, inherited the fourth minority government. That government lasted for longer than any of its predessors, surviving for three years before being defeated on a vote of confidence and losing the 1979 general election.
How did these minority governments survive? The most common method has been through ad hoc majorities on particular issues. But this negative basis prevented such governments from promoting coherent legislative programmes. They survived, but at a price that made it impossible for them to govern.
On two occasions, therefore - in 1930 and in the 1970s - minority governments sought agreements with other parties. The second Labour government secured an informal understanding with the Liberals in 1930, by which Labour would promote electoral reform in return for the Liberals sustaining the government in office for two further years. In 1978-79, the Callaghan government had an informal understanding with the SNP, by which the government would be kept in office until after the devolution referendums; and with the Ulster Unionists, by which the government would be kept in office until extra- parliamentary seats had been granted to Northern Ireland.
But the main reason for the Callaghan government's survival as a minority administration was the Lib-Lab pact. In 1977, Labour was in a desperate position. Knowing that it faced defeat, it had refused even to contest an adjournment motion on its public expenditure plans, which were rejected by 293 votes to 0. Yet, 16 per cent behind in the polls, Labour dared not go to the country.
Callaghan, therefore, approached David Steel, the Liberal leader, who declared that he would sustain the government only if a joint committee were established so that the Liberals would enjoy a formal consultative role in legislation. The pact was a novel constitutional experiment, since it was not a coalition and the Liberals did not join the govern- ment, but remained on the opposition benches. It lasted, nevertheless, until July 1978.
Had Callaghan gone to the country then, rather than hanging on till 1979, he might well have been able to retain office and Thatcherism would never have been heard of again.
Is a similar device open to John Major? He can hardly propose a pact with the Tory rebels, and the only other party that he can depend upon is the Ulster Unionists. But, if he is to avoid presiding over a broken-backed administration, he needs something more than a commitment to support the Government in confidence votes. To make the most of Unionist support, therefore, he needs to negotiate a pact with the party, offering it, as was done in 1977, a consultative role over legislation. That in d eed might have avoided the shambles of last week's VAT vote.
A pact with the Unionists would be perfectly in accordance with Tory traditions. Until 1972, after all, the Ulster Unionists took the Tory whip at Westminster. Had they still done so in 1974, the Conservatives rather than Labour would have been the largest party in the House. Edward Heath sought to recoup his losses by offering the whip to seven of the eleven Unionist MPs returned in March 1974, excluding the Paisleyites, but he was too late and the Unionists rejected him.
Would a pact damage the Irish peace process? There is no reason why it should, since the Conservatives accept that Northern Ireland must remain part of the United Kingdom, while that is the wish of a majority in the province, and the Unionists, by contr a st with 1972, will accept a partnership government in Northern Ireland, and non-executive links with the Republic. Moreover, a pact could serve to combat the deep sense of alienation on the part of the majority in Northern Ireland, the most powerful poli tical force in the current politics of the province.
If the Conservatives want to continue to govern, they must learn to share legislative power. That would involve surrendering their unilateral control over the parliamentary timetable, and replacing adversarial politics with the politics of negotiation.
This kind of politics, the politics of sharing power, may become a pointer to the future. The Conservatives were 7.5 per cent ahead of Labour in the 1992 general election, but won an overall majority of only 21. Had they lost another 1 per cent of the vote, there would have been a hung parliament, even though the Conservatives would have been more than 6 per cent ahead.
At the next election, either major party will probably have to gain a lead of at least 4 per cent to secure an overall majority. Such a lead was gained in only two of the nine general elections between 1945 and 1979, when the Conservatives came into office. So, whether or not we like hung parliaments, we may well have to get used to them.
Vernon Bogdanor is Reader in Government, Oxford University, and a Fellow of Brasenose College.Reuse content