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What was the effect of the 2010 coalition on the UK parliament?

At this time there were two parties in Government, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The first time that this had happened in peacetime since 1931. 

Did there have to be a coalition government in 2010?

When the Conservative Party failed to achieve a majority of MPs in the 2010 general election, David Cameron could have formed a minority Government. This happened in 2017 when Theresa May lost her majority at the General Election and needed the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)

In 2010, there could have been some arrangements with the Liberal Democrats to ensure the Conservative party was not defeated on the Queen’s Speech or a Confidence Motion.

David Cameron could then have waited for a year or so and called another general election. In that year he could have carried out popular policies and timed the election when opinion polls looked favourable.

Against all expectations the Conservatives proposed and then negotiated a Coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrat Party.  

What influenced forming the coalition?

Two factors influenced this:-

  • The idea that there might be an economic crisis if a strong Government to deal with the deficit was not formed.  Senior civil servants were pushing this view.
  • In opposition, Cameron had positioned the Conservative Party as more socially liberal and concerned with issues such as poverty and the environment. Among the Liberal Democrats there was a group, including leader Nick Clegg, who wanted to move the party to a more free market view.  Thus there was some convergence in ideology between the leadership of the two parties. Cameron may also have felt that it would be easier to work with the Liberal Democrats than depend on the votes of the group of right wing anti-European Conservative MPs.

The effect on the UK Parliament

Overall it could be argued that the effect of the Coalition on Parliament was limited, reflecting the extent to which Parliament as an institution has a stability regardless of who the Government is. 

The Government, when the two sets of MPs were added together, had a majority of 78 which is larger than many single party majority parties in the past. 

The Government was able to win the votes and get almost all its business through Parliament without any difficulty.  

Some changes and uncertainties

The procedures and the way business was dealt with remained much as before.  However, there were some changes and uncertainties:-

  • Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs sat in different parts of the Government benches. David Cameron on the Government frontbench was surrounded by a mixture of Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers and combined teams of ministers sat there when Departmental issues were discussed.
  • There were two sets of whips. The Chief Whip was a Conservative and the Deputy Chief Whip a Liberal Democrat. Each set worked only with its own MPs but they met together on Mondays, as Government whips have always done, to plan the week ahead. When the Coalition was agreed it was accepted that Liberal Democrat MPs did not have to support the Government on Trident, nuclear power and tax breaks for married couples. This was unprecedented given the normal expectation that Government MPs will support it on everything.
  • It was generally accepted none of the political parties should have a majority in the House of Lords.  The Coalition did mean that there was a Government majority over Labour when Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers were combined. The Independent (Crossbench) peers still held the balance of power though many of them rarely attended.
  • The idea of a Government mandate given in a general election became a problem. The Coalition Agreement, drawn up during the negotiations between the two parties, contained elements of the manifestos of each party but omitted others. It also included commitments that were not in either party’s manifesto.

This raised questions of the political legitimacy of what the Coalition did.  More specifically it raised questions about how the Salisbury Convention, under which the House of Lords does not vote down any legislation which follows from a proposal in the winning party’s manifesto should work.

It could be argued that Government represented a majority of voters (actually more than a single party Government would) or that the outcome of voters’ decisions was that there should be a Coalition but this can be debated.

  • This Parliament saw more rebellions with Government backbench MPs not supporting it in votes than any other in the last 100 years.  This was part of a long term trend towards MPs being more rebellious. Many new MPs entering the Commons in 2010 were more independent minded but the Coalition meant that Conservative rightwingers did not support some policies wanted by the Liberal Democrats and Liberal Democrats on the left wing of the party did not support some policies put forward by the Conservatives.  Because they rebelled on different issues it did not lead to the Government being defeated in the divisions, except in one or two cases such as House of Lords reform and the redrawing of constituency boundaries. 
  • The Coalition led to the creation of Fixed Term Parliaments.  Previously the Prime Minister could decide when the next general election was held but the Liberal Democrats did not want Cameron to dump them and call an election when the opinion polls favoured the Conservatives. Cameron wanted some stability as well. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act, 2011 took the power away from the Prime Minister and fixed the date of the next election in May 2015 unless Parliament voted otherwise.