Getting the detail right: preparing for coalition or minority government

Whitehall expert Akash Paun gives a crash course in what to expect in the event of another indecisive election result

By Akash Paun

20 Apr 2015

After five years of coalition, the UK has grown accustomed to – if not enthused by – the idea of parties working together in government. Assuming another hung parliament results from May’s election, should we expect a repeat performance or will things work differently this time?

International experience is that coalition agreements grow longer and more detailed with each new negotiation, as parties learn that it is best to bind their partners as closely as possible into an agreed programme at the outset. In 2010, a range of major issues – tuition fees, banking reform and long-term care among them – were referred to external commissions, with the parties sufficiently confident in their ability to reach agreement later on. Will negotiators feel the same in 2015? And will their parties back them?

This second point is important, as the experience of 2010 shows that failing to bring MPs and party members into the deal can store up problems. Then, the Conservative leadership was willing to commit to House of Lords reform, but dozens of their backbenchers refused to deliver it. Expect any coalition talks this time to involve more of a ‘two-level game’, with negotiators shuttling between cross-party and intra-party negotiations like diplomats flying back to their home capital to ensure that any treaty drawn up will be ratified.

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Last time, negotiations focussed almost entirely on policy. Important questions such as the allocation of ministerial portfolios and the processes that would underpin the coalition were left to be resolved later – with varying degrees of success. Many Liberal Democrats now feel they underplayed their hand in terms of the ministerial posts they received. And insufficient thought was put into issues such as how to resource the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and how to ensure that junior ministers in departments led by the other side are kept aware of policy development and announcements. Such issues may form part of the negotiations this May.

So negotiations may take longer; and that may be no bad thing. In countries such as Canada and Australia, even after a clear majority victory the handover of power is usually phased over a week or two, giving incoming ministers time to prepare (and rest).

Getting the detail right is important, since coalition agreements are a contract between the governing parties (if one with limited enforcement mechanisms). One senior official notes the irony that “you end up with something that’s probably been crafted in even less time than it takes to craft a manifesto, and yet is more slavishly adhered to”.

In 2010, negotiations produced a package of policies on the NHS that were internally inconsistent – having been spliced together from the two manifestos, and written into the coalition agreement without consulting the Department of Health. Nobody wants months of negotiations, as in Belgium, but the sky won’t fall in if we have a transition period of a week or two.

Of course, full coalition is just one of several solutions to the problem of governing in a hung parliament. New Zealand switched to proportional representation in 1996, and after two unsuccessful coalitions, the country has been governed by a succession of minority governments supported by ‘confidence and supply’ agreements with small parties.

For the larger party, this means its government is not perpetually on the brink of falling, permitting a clearer long-term strategy to be formed. Compromises must be made, but they tend to be smaller and more focussed than in coalition, where the entire government programme is the product of compromise. Such a deal may therefore be easier to sell to sceptical backbench members and activists. For smaller parties, this arrangement can help secure important ‘policy wins’ and a reputation for facilitating stable government, while better preserving their separate political identity.

In some cases, even the limited compromises of a confidence and supply deal prove too much of a stretch. In that case, a pure or unsupported minority government may emerge. This is seen by many in Westminster as a worst case scenario, yet there are plenty of successful examples.

Successful minority governments put together temporary coalitions for each new vote, conceding enough to get their business through parliament, and relying on the fact that the interests of opposition parties are rarely aligned. Alex Salmond in Scotland and Stephen Harper in Canada both led minority administrations in this way, before winning a majority at a subsequent election. Minority governments also control important non-legislative policy levers such as the Budget process, public appointments and foreign policy.

It is true that a minority government survives only so long as opposition parties do not unite on a no-confidence motion. But it is rare for all other parties to be simultaneously in favour of an early election or change of government; governing as a minority can be less perilous than it first appears.

One of the two large parties may yet win a majority this May, but the polls are firmly against it. Like it or not, Westminster is likely to continue its education in the ways of multi-party politics.


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