The exit polls for today’s United Kingdom snap general election are out and they predict that the Conservative party has lost 17 seats in the House of Commons, bringing them to 314. If the polls are correct, this means that the Conservatives have lost their majority in Parliament. Polls further predict that Labour won 34 additional seats and the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) have gained 6. Polling stations have been open since 7 a.m. BST this morning, and they officially closed at 10 p.m. BST (5 p.m. EST). The national exit poll was released at 10 p.m. BST sharp and reflects data gathered from a random survey of a fraction of the voters at selected polling stations.
It is important to approach exit poll data with some caution. Since 2001 exit polls have generally accurately predicted the winners of recent general elections—the last election in 2015 was a notable exception with the Conservative party winning 14 seats more than was indicated by exit polls—but they have been significantly less successful at predicting the number of seats won by each party. This means that the Conservative party may still have kept its majority given that the margin of error is 12 members of parliament; the Conservatives need 326 MPs to retain its majority in the 650 seat House of Commons. We may see variation on the exact number of seats when the when the official results come out over the course of the evening and early morning. The first announcement will be made around 11 p.m. BST and the remainder will follow piecemeal. Around 1 a.m. BST, seats for the Labour-held Nuneaton will be announced. If Nuneaton is taken by the Conservatives, that victory could be the first concrete indication of the Conservative party’s victory, but there will still be a question as to how many of these seats they’ve claimed. Shortly thereafter, some contested Conservative-held constituency results will be released.
“Hung Parliament” is the term for a parliament in which no party has a clear majority. The last two general elections that resulted in a hung parliament were in 1974 and 2010. In 2010 David Cameron formed a coalition government with the Lib Dems. If the exit polls are accurate, tomorrow the Conservative party may have a choice between forming a coalition government, in which it partners with other parties to create an aggregated majority, or ruling as a minority government, which will require them to work to form majorities for each individual piece of legislation. That said, a closer look at the exit poll numbers suggests that there may be a deeper conflict lurking below the surface. The exit polls have Labour at 266 seats. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has 34 and the Lib Dems have 14. If Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems form a coalition or voting bloc, they will have exactly 314 seats. At that stage, the Northern Ireland Unionists will likely ally with the Conservative Party and Labour may find support from the 3 Plaid Cymru MPs and the single Green Party MP. The Lib Dems are highly unlikely to consider aligning with the Conservative party.
Prime Minister May intended for this snap election to further solidify the Conservative government’s majority in parliament, primarily to lubricate the domestic policy making that will dictate upcoming Brexit negotiations, which start next Monday. A hung parliament means that other parties will jump on the opportunity to foil the Conservative policy agenda, including its plans for a hard Brexit. Many commercial interests are welcoming the potential for a softer Brexit, but the markets abhore uncertainty. In the minutes after the release of the exit poll, the British pound fell from $1.29 to $1.27. Prime Minister May will face dissent within her party for having created what will plainly appear in retrospect to be unnecessary roadblocks. Lastly, in the wake of the Manchester and London attacks, there has been heated debate between the parties on the appropriate law enforcement and counterterrorism responses (for more detail on this debate, read Michael Leiter’s piece on Lawfare). A hung parliament will only mean more unpredictability in security policy at a particularly important and unstable time for the United Kingdom. It may also mean unpredictability for the relationship between U.S. and U.K. governments, with the major parties being diametrically opposed on the U.K.’s approach to alignment with Donald Trump.
At any rate, and regardless of tomorrow morning’s reality, there is good reason to believe that the recent decline of Theresa May is more than just a momentary dip in popularity.