Unequal opportunities? Liberal Democrat former defence minister Nick Harvey on the lessons for junior coalition partners

Liberal Democrat candidate Nick Harvey served as defence minister for two years. Here he shares his thoughts on how the junior partner in a future coalition can avoid having its voice drowned out

By Nick Harvey

23 Apr 2015

Opinion polls suggest that another hung parliament is on the cards. But this may not necessarily mean that another coalition will be formed, as the potential composition of the new House of Commons may be a lot more complex than the present one.

 So, what lessons are to be learned? All parts of the body politic will draw their own conclusions. For my own part, I believe that the machinery of government failed to adapt fully to the different political dynamic of coalition. Too often, the existing wheels just expected the system to carry on as before – and from the perspective of the smaller partner, too often it did.

The coalition negotiations in the heady days following the May 2010 general election were conducted in three parts. First – and most publicly – was policy. Two teams, led by William Hague and Danny Alexander, assisted by the policy gurus Oliver Letwin and David Laws, spent many hours hammering out a policy prospectus for the coalition, and this was duly presented to the nation as the foundation block of the new government. The second part of the negotiation focused on coalition machinery – the way disputes, which would inevitably arise from time to time, would be resolved. The third part – almost unremarked on at the time, beyond the fact that the Lib Dems had some cabinet posts – was referred to colloquially as ‘bums on seats’. From the Lib Dem perspective this meant which – and how many – government posts were to be filled by Liberal Democrats, and who would fill them. This appears to have been dealt with entirely on a one-to-one basis between the party leaders.

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Two problems quickly arose. It soon became clear that the Conservatives had game-planned the hung parliament scenario far more meticulously than either the Lib Dems or Labour: they knew what they wanted more clearly than did the Lib Dems. To compound this difficulty, in stark contrast to the policy agenda, we Lib Dems did not have any internal discussions or consultations about what we wanted from this part of the negotiation. And, once the mechanical issues of coalition had been agreed at breakneck speed, there was really no way of unpicking them. There was absolutely no political incentive for David Cameron to agree later to revisit any of these issues and concede more to his political partners than we had accepted at the outset, so the window of opportunity for fundamental renegotiation had in practical terms virtually disappeared.

The critical point is that over a five-year term, agreements on the mechanics are every bit as important as the barter on policy. My recent pamphlet After the Rose Garden (published by the Institute for Government) outlined my own prescription for the Lib Dems in any future coalition negotiation where our participation makes the whole thing viable. 

The key points were that we should have a minister and spad in every department (but supporting a reduction in number); the deputy secretary of state in every department where we don’t have the secretary of state – armed with the same executive power of veto the DPM has had this time; moving beyond the nonsense of one party’s press team trying to ‘gag’ the other party – i.e. a DPM press team separate from Number 10’s; the ‘Coalition Committee’ agreed in 2010 actually being constituted and meeting regularly to handle routine tensions and only referring intractable problems up to the ‘Quad’.

Of course, no deal can be entirely comprehensive – events will always spark the need for new agreements to be reached. But there is a strong argument for agreeing far more than was written into the 2010 deal. Efforts to update it later with a mid-term review came to nothing because they lacked the same momentum as the original talks – and because the relationship was rather less rosy by the half-way point. Towards the end, with the 2015 election looming, things have become conspicuously tetchy. 


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