Peter Riddell: An inconclusive election will create complex challenges for Whitehall

Another inconclusive election will mean uncertainty for the country – and complex challenges for Whitehall, says the Institute for Government's Peter Riddell

By Sir Peter Riddell

24 Apr 2015

Elections, and their aftermaths, are always the most demanding time for civil servants. Familiar assumptions are challenged and new relationships have to be established. That applies even if the same government retains office, since ministers are likely to change and the political context always alters after an election. Of course, this time it could be even more difficult, especially if another hung parliament produces a minority government rather than a coalition.

There are several distinct challenges. First, if there is a period of uncertainty lasting longer than the five days of 2010, there will be a tension between serving what will remain the government of the day and the need to appear impartial when it is unclear who will form the long-term administration. 

Civil service guidance has traditionally been focused on the campaign itself – the traditional purdah period, not least because the handover was, before 2010, invariably immediately after polling day. Ministers, of course, remain in office and deal with urgent business, but are expected to defer decisions of a long-term character, such as policy changes, senior appointments and contracts. 

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The 2011 Cabinet Manual did include a paragraph (2.30) stating “if there is no overall majority, for as long as there is significant doubt over the government’s ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons”, many of the campaign restrictions would continue to apply. The point at which such restrictions end is not entirely clear. The Cabinet Manual says it “may often be either when a new prime minister is appointed by the sovereign or where a government’s ability to command the confidence of the Commons has been tested in the Commons.”

It is possible that talks could take quite a lot longer than in 2010, both because the arithmetic of the party balances may be more complicated, and because the parties will want more detail and precision in any agreement. The longer this period goes on, the trickier it could become if ministers return to their offices, and particularly if the incumbent prime minister seeks to introduce a Queen’s speech in order to test whether he has the confidence of the Commons. Officials would be expected to work on that, while the purdah restrictions continue on appointments, contracts etc. Producing a Queen’s speech would not of itself involve long-term commitments until a prime minister has won a vote. There will be a need for further guidance on this after polling day if there is a hung parliament. 

Second, civil servants were famously kept out of the negotiating room in 2010, partly because of fears by politicians that any official notes would be subject to Freedom of Information requests. This time, subject to the approval of the prime minister, civil servants stand ready to provide logistical support – rooms in 70 Whitehall and elsewhere – and to answer factual questions on the costing of policies and what is involved in implementation, such as any legislation required. But negotiators are not entitled to civil service advice and there are grey areas about whether all parties to a negotiation should receive the answers to any factual question from one party.

Third, whenever a government is formed, and of whatever kind, there will be a delicate period of adjustment. New ministers, particularly if they have previously been in opposition, may be wary at first – though, if they had shadowed the department, there will have been the opportunity to develop mutual understanding during the pre-election access talks. The prime need is for clarity over working styles as much as policy priorities. Most accusations of politicisation against the civil service are wrong. A more common, and very human, problem is that familiarity with one secretary of state’s and one party’s approach, thinking and behaviour can inadvertently create suspicions in the minds of an incoming minister and their advisers. Language matters.

Fourth, the civil service adjusted quickly in 2010 to the shift from majority government to coalition. But a minority government would present a wholly different set of challenges. In a coalition, the main tensions are within the executive, between the two parties as they try to agree policies and resolve differences. Parliament has mattered less, since, while there have been frequent rebellions by Conservative MPs on the right and Liberal Democrat MPs on the left, they have not seriously threatened the coalition’s comfortable working majority. They have been noises off. 

However, with a minority government, the focus shifts to the Commons as, depending on the nature of any formal or informal agreements with other parties, ministers will be seeking all the time to secure a majority for their measures. That means government by negotiation and compromise – or, more crudely, a need to offer concessions and inducements to other parties. It also means that ministers’ minds will be more focused on the Commons, and they will spend more time there. That may even produce nostalgia for the coalition years. 


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