Magazine article Public Finance

Coalition of the Willing

Magazine article Public Finance

Coalition of the Willing

Article excerpt

prepare for the unexpected was the watchword around Whitehall ahead of polling day. Based on the surprise outcomes in both Scotland and Wales in 2007, Sir Gus O'Donnell. the Cabinet secretary, challenged civil servants to think the unthinkable. And. now, the unthinkable has happened: the least predicted outcome, a formal Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition.

The implications are enormous for the way that Whitehall and Westminster operate. We have never been here before. Of course, there were the two wartime coalitions, the Tory-dominated Lloyd George coalition in 1918-22 and the national government of 1931-3°. But none of these is really comparable with two separate, unified parties coming together in peacetime to create a formal coalition.

However, such coalitions are common outside Westminster. In the rest of Europe, all but four governments are multi-party and. nearer to home, there is long experience of coalitions in Scotland and Wales. And, of course, many local councils have been run by coalitions.

Among the many lessons of these examples - as set out in reports from the Constitution Unit and the Institute for Government - is that both politicians and civil servants have to behave differently. What had been informal now becomes formal. Coalitions usually involve not only lengthy negotiations - an average of 40 days in the European Union - but also long and detailed agreements on policy and the allocation of portfolios. This can result in inflexibility since everything has to be negotiated between the partners.

Moreover, reshuffles become tricky since ministers have to be replaced by someone from the same party. This is not necessarily a bad thing since it can increase the length of time ministers spend in the post.

The main attraction of coalitions is that they should provide a degree of stability, especially in the current situation where no single party has a Commons majority. The coalition government will have a majority of more than 70 in the Commons, slightly larger than the Labour government of 2005.

There is a danger that Parliament will be weakened with one rather than two opposition parties. This will put more pressure on strengthening its scrutiny role via the partially reformed select committee system.

In a coalition, unlike in a minority government, the emphasis shifts from the legislature to the executive. …

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