By Peter Hennessy

22 Apr 2015

Five years ago, Gus O’Donnell was a key player in the delicate transition to a coalition government. Peter Hennessy asks the former cabinet secretary what we might expect after next month’s vote

The former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell has been in near constant demand from the media in recent weeks to talk about how our mercurial British constitution operates in the uncertain circumstances of a hung parliament, as opinion polls indicate the distinct possibility of a second one in a row after 7 May.

As cabinet secretary in 2010, Gus O’Donnell was (with Sir Christopher Geidt, the Queen’s private secretary and Sir Jeremy Heywood, the principal private secretary in No. 10 and now Lord O’Donnell’s successor in the Cabinet Office) one of the great oil cans of state whose job was to help politicians glide through the mechanics of government formation and, as he puts it, to “help the parties come to some kind of solution so that we have effective government”. “We are facilitators,” he adds. “The responsibility of coming to a deal is for the political parties. And if the political parties fail to come to a deal, then no matter how much oil we have provided, there’s not much the civil service can do.”

In the run-up to the May 2010 election, Lord O’Donnell prepared a draft of the government formation section of The Cabinet Manual (then a novelty for the UK and based on the New Zealand model). He shared it with the House of Commons Justice Select Committee before parliament was dissolved. “The key principles,” he explains, “as The Cabinet Manual enshrines them (although it hasn’t got a legal basis), come from the past, which are that the Queen shall not be embarrassed in any circumstances or appear to act politically in sending for one person over another to be prime minister; that this continuity of government – the Queen’s government – must be carried on. 

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“This is what comes out of those two principles – the parties must sort it out between them who is likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons before the incumbent prime minister goes and, before going, he advises the Queen, with a lower-case ‘a’, not an upper-case ‘A’, on who she should send for.”

A dash of decoding is needed here. Sir Martin Charteris, the Queen’s private secretary when the February 1974 general election produced a hung result, liked to distinguish between upper-case Advice from the prime minister which the Queen, as a constitutional monarch, has to accept, from lowercase advice which she does not (the power to appoint a prime minister is hers alone and rests on the ancient power of the royal prerogative).

Lord O’Donnell continues his explanation: “Those, I think, in essence, are the assumptions and the principles that are in The Cabinet Manual. And you were one of a group of constitutionalists that we consulted before putting together that manual. So what I would stress is that, if it turns out there is to be a change of prime minister, then it’s clear that the prime minister ideally should stay until it’s absolutely clear who the Queen should be calling on to form – to attempt to form – the next government.”

And here he draws on his experience of May 2010: “It doesn’t have to be completely cast-iron. I keep reminding people that last time, when David Cameron appeared on the steps of 10 Downing Street, he said it was his intention to have a coalition government. It was quite clear at that point David Cameron was going to be prime minister. It was not entirely clear what kind of government it would be. So not everything has to be nailed down. But it is important that the Queen stays above politics, that the civil service role is to ensure continuity and to manage that period, if there is one, between an election and the formation of a new government, to make sure that everything carries on as smoothly as possible.”

'Deeply personal'

I remind Lord O’Donnell that though “it went very smoothly last time” and that “the constitution shimmered through, did its stuff” there were some critics who claimed that he had not just been the groundsman, but that he was priming the pitch in an attempt to engineer a coalition outcome.

“Well, the truth is, as I keep saying, we can facilitate. It’s up to the political parties what to do. We have to be impartial and neutral.”

It also relies, I suggest, on a degree of restraint on the part of all the big political players, what a former cabinet office civil servant, Clive Priestley, once called “the good chap theory of government” – whereby everyone knows the location of the invisible lines one does not cross. “One thing I’ve stressed about last time is that all of the parties behaved with great integrity. Gordon Brown stayed as prime minister ’til it was clear who he should advise the Queen to call on as next prime minister. Gordon Brown was accused of squatting in No. 10 by parts of the media and I think that was deeply unfair.”

Isn’t there an emotional geography about these transfers of premiership too? “Yes, and it’s a deeply personal thing. I think that came out in what was a brilliant speech Gordon Brown gave on exit, I think one of his finest speeches.”

Wasn’t there also, in May 2010, the sense of a clock ticking? “There were certainly some worries about Euro crisis and the Greeks at that time. And yes, the macroeconomic background for the UK – 11% deficit to GDP ratio – was very difficult, so the markets were nervous. It wasn’t clear how they would react to it. So I think that meant that the political parties felt that kind of mood music as well, and they were keen to get on with it and worked intensively and, indeed, came up with a solution in what was an amazingly short amount of time when you compare it with 44 days; I think the average in 2010 for coalitions to be formed in Europe.”

'Throw out a Queen's Speech'

We turn to what might be different in 2015. If there is another coalition government negotiation, David Cameron has promised his backbenchers a secret ballot on the ingredients of any agreement. So the coalition agreement is likely to be more detailed and will take longer to produce, with extra time needed for a ballot on top of that?

“Sure. Last time there were quite detailed consultations with the Liberal Democrats and that might be more widespread this time, with more parties. People need to be ready for that, and I think one of the points of interviewers and discussions like this is to get people ready for the idea that it might take longer and they should be relaxed about that – that’s just the process of government working out smoothly. It’s the kind of thing that would be regarded as entirely routine throughout most of Europe.”

But might not another complication occur which was not present in 2010, making a 2015 repeat still more protracted? The Fixed-Terms Parliament Act (2011) requires a confidence vote to contain a particular form of wording. If a prime minister – still uncertain of this ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons – presented a Queen’s Speech to parliament and lost, that vote would no longer be regarded, as heretofore, as an equivalent of a confidence vote whose loss would oblige that PM to resign. What’s more, if a vote of confidence is lost under the rubric of the 2011 act, there follows a 14-day period in which further attempts can be made to put together a grouping that can command the Commons. Should that happen, we’ll be well into June, and who knows what the money markets would be making of it all?
Gus O’Donnell reaches for the oil can once more.

“Either a grouping can get its programme through or not. I don’t think we should get too fixated on particular words in a particular motion.”

So, the House of Commons, in its collective wisdom, will find a way – a cunning plan of Baldrickian proportion…? “Well, no. The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act is there and is important. But I wouldn’t get too fixated on particular words in a motion. If parliament wants to approve or throw out a Queen’s Speech and thereby trigger a change in government, they’ll find a way to do it.”

As for the “good chaps” theory – will everybody behave? “I’m very confident they’ll all behave well.”

I suspect that very few analysts in the global money markets are keen students of the UK’s Cabinet Manual. Let’s hope they read Civil Service World and are suitably soothed. 


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