Harmony at the heart of the British coalition

Sat, Jun 16, 2012, 01:00

WORLD VIEW:A new study finds the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government is bold and decisive

THE STORY of every coalition government, no matter the country, is the same – one where outsiders look daily for evidence of splits and divisions among people who must co-operate yet must also struggle to maintain their independence.

For its first 18 months, despite the perception often created by a British press uncomfortable with, if not downright virulently opposed to coalitions, the British government has been more peaceful than could have been imagined in May 2010.

The story behind ministerial doors is told by a remarkable book, The Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government Works, published this week by University College London’s highly respected Constitution Unit.

Since shortly after the coalition’s formation, its researchers have been allowed extraordinary access inside the corridors of power to observe the internal workings of Britain’s first coalition government for 65 years.

“Watching them in action quickly exploded the British myth that coalition government must be unstable, weak and indecisive,” says Prof Robert Hazell, who co-authored the book with Dr Ben Yong. “This one was remarkably bold and decisive – and at the centre, remarkably harmonious.”

Based on interviews with more than 140 ministers, MPs, lords, civil servants, party officials and interest groups about the coalition, the book vaporises a few myths, notably that the Liberal Democrats – the smallest of the three main parties – had been the best prepared for the days after the election.

“That is not correct: they prepared well for a hung parliament, they did not prepare well for government,” say the authors, even though senior Liberal Democrats had established a negotiating team by late 2009.

“I think we were good at working out what we wanted from the coalition government. I don’t think we were very good at working out what we wanted out of government,” one Liberal Democrat minister commented.

Exhaustion played its part. The party’s negotiators strove to agree a programme for government with the Conservatives, while crowds of journalists and the public waited outside the cabinet office on Whitehall for white smoke.

Having focused on policies, the smaller party paid less attention to the mechanics of government needed to give voice to them and even less to the division of portfolios – despite the perception that politicians think only about jobs.

Faced with a choice, the Liberal Democrats opted to spread their ministers across government, to ensure they had eyes everywhere, rather than focusing on key departments that they could make their own.

“By part three of it, which was bums on seats, [Liberal Democrats leader] Nick [Clegg] did it completely on his own. I think we got a completely duff deal,” says one minister.

Another believes a fortnight will be needed if such work is ever to be done again.

By the end of 2011, insiders believed the coalition “seemed remarkably harmonious and successful”. However, the public had seen little to change their discomfort with coalitions.

“This was despite the point made by many Whitehall interviewees that differences between ministers of the same party were more frequent and more serious than differences between the coalition partners,” say the authors.

Sometimes the blame lay with the parties themselves who, while relatively united, still managed to accentuate the differences between them every time they dealt with the House of Commons press lobby.

Some but not all of that was stage-managed by prime minister David Cameron and deputy prime minister Clegg to soothe their own ranks, but part of the blame is laid at the door of Cameron’s first director of communications, one Andy Coulson, who had “an instinct but not a strategy” for communications in a coalition age.

Some of the faults have been rectified only for the coalition to find that its ability to command the airwaves had increasingly been challenged by the News of the World phone-hacking scandal and its aftermath.

Although relations between Cameron and Clegg remain warm, the same cannot be said of their respective backbenchers, many of whom are more poisonous towards each other than they are towards the Labour Party.

A mid-term policy review was considered but rejected, with both believing it would merely underline differences, even though on economic strategy the Conservatives have been forced to come closer to some of the Liberal Democrats’ ideas.

Drawing lessons, the authors argue that British political parties will need to write their manifestos with coalition in mind, not just single-party rule. At the same time, they will have to keepties open with potential partners, unlike Labour’s approach in the run-up to the 2010 election.

Despite the negative reputation of special advisers, the book recommends an increase in the number for the smaller party, particularly those based in 10 Downing Street, along with greater measures to include backbenchers in the workings of an entity many disdain.

Summing up, the book argues that the early internal peacefulness of the coalition will be hard to maintain.

However, that is unlikely to be news to those elsewhere, such as Ireland, who are more accustomed to the vagaries of coalition.

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