BRIT POLITICS, Study, Learn,  Create, Inspire

University 18 Yrs + | The Core Executive

Discover Central Government banner

A Coalition in the UK Government and the Core Executive (2010-15)

The creation of a Coalition had significant implications for how the Core Executive worked:-

1. Whereas normally a Government is elected on its election manifesto, the two coalition parties drew up the Coalition Agreement which was a statement of the policies that would be carried out. Although it is a fiction that voters will all read the manifestos and decide who to vote for on the basis of them, nevertheless, no one voted for the Coalition Agreement.

2. The Liberal Democrats were allocated 5 cabinet ministers and 24 other ministers. These could not be sacked by the Prime Minister but only by the Leader of the Liberal Democrats at the time, Nick Clegg. Vince Cable would probably normally have been sacked after giving his views on Murdoch’s BskyB bid to undercover reporters but was protected as a Lib Dem minister. Nick Clegg changed some of his junior ministers when Cameron carried out his reshuffle telling one of them that it was not because he had done a bad job but, as the Lib Dems did not know when they would be in office again, he wanted to give more people a chance of being a minister.

3. There was a Conservative/Liberal Democrat balance in chairing Cabinet Committees and, of course, in the Quad. Deals were struck reasonably harmoniously but once firmed up were very difficult to change their details in order to compromise if any group of backbenchers were unhappy with the outcome.

4. The Deputy Prime Minister’s office duplicated No 10 on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.

5. Cabinet Collective Responsibility was uncertain; Vince Cable regularly criticised Chancellor George Osborne’s economic policy and Liberal Democrat ministers had no intention of supporting the Government’s boundary changes once Conservative backbenchers had refused to support House of Lords reform.

6. There were two sets of whips who only dealt with their party’s backbenchers. The coalition Parliament was the most rebellious Parliament for a hundred years but because right wing Conservatives and left wing Liberal Democrats rebelled on different issues the Government’s majority stayed intact. The exception was the defeat over Syria and, whereas in the past a Government might well have resigned over such a serious foreign policy defeat, by accepting the vote Cameron gave Parliament considerably more power over foreign policy decisions.

(Mark Bennister and Richard Heffernan explain how Cameron’s role as PM within the Coalition is different from previous PMs Parliamentary Affairs Vol. 65 No 4 2012)

How did the Coalition form?

In 2010, Britain saw the first formation of a peacetime Coalition Government since 1931 and the first to form between two sizeable parties since 1918.

However, Coalitions are common in Continental countries and some, such as Finland, Germany and the Netherlands always have coalitions (and we have now seen them in Scotland and Wales) and so political scientists have been able to study why they form.

There are two main theories:-

1. The rational choice theory of coalitions argues that they will form on the basis of Minimal Winning Coalitions. The more parties are included in the coalition the less ministerial positions each party will get and the more policy compromises have to be made. So parties will add in just enough parties to reach a majority in Parliament. The problem with the theory is that, if you look at what actually happens across European countries, coalitions are not minimal winning but add in extra parties or the largest party prefers to form a minority government.

2. The alternative theory is that coalitions can form when there is policy convergence between parties so that they can reach some sort of agreement on a common programme.

The policy convergence theory best fits the creation of the Coalition in Britain. David Cameron had attempted to rebrand the Conservative Party as modern and socially liberal at the same time as prominent Liberal Democrats had taken a new look at their economic and public services policies.

The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism edited by David Laws promoted ideas of choice and competition that brought them closer to the Conservatives.

When Cameron failed to achieve a majority in the election the expectation was that he would form a minority Conservative Government, as Labour had done in the past, but instead started talks with Clegg.

When the history of the period is written the influence of the Cabinet Secretary who warned of the need for a stable government to deal with economic problems may have been important.

Cameron, in Government, has probably found it easier to deal with Clegg and rely on the Lib Dems for a secure majority than on the small group of the most right wing Conservatives.

David Laws’s book 22 Days in May, 2010 gives a good detailed account of the negotiations from the Lib Dem view.

The Conservatives saw EU powers, defence and immigration as non-negotiable and the Lib Dems required a referendum on electoral reform. There was considerable policy convergence in other areas.

Andrew Adonis’s book 5 Days in May the Coalition and Beyond, 2013 gives the Labour account.