Coalition Works!

Media speculation in the UK over the health of the coalition began quite literally the day the agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was announced and hasn’t ever gone away. Indeed, as the referendum campaign on AV heated up and very public spats occurred between Conservative and Lib Dem ministers, many papers and columnists speculated that the coalition was on shaky ground (again).

Following the release last week of an interim report looking at how the coalition was functioning,  some media chose to highlight whatever was negative in the report. The Guardian trumpeted that the “Deputy PM’s office ineffective, report on coalition government finds“, Public Finance bemoaned “What happened to collective responsibility?”, while the Telegraph reported rather dismissively “How David Cameron and Nick Clegg decide policy – by phone“.

Yet the report from the Constitution Unit was, for the most part, very positive. The official press release, Coalition Works! the Inside Story from the Constitution Unit states:

Despite the political strains which have affected the coalition in recent months, the Constitution Unit’s research on how the coalition works shows that it has functioned very well in its first year. Viewed from inside, the ructions which have dominated the headlines have not destroyed the coalition’s effectiveness.

The Unit’s first year report, Inside Story: How coalition government works, is based upon 90 interviews with senior people in Whitehall and Westminster. The mutual trust and close working relations developed inside the government should help as it faces tougher times ahead.

“People feared that coalition government would be weak, quarrelsome and divided” said the Unit’s director Prof Robert Hazell. “But in the first year the coalition has been remarkably stable and united. Everyone we interviewed in Whitehall says how much more harmonious the coalition is compared with the rivalries and infighting of the Blair/Brown years”.

It is interesting how the report has been interpreted by some. Dan Corry, who penned the PublicFinance article above (“What happened to collective responsibility”), writes:

It was all going to be different this time – or so we were told. Far fewer special advisers so that ministers and officials were clearly in the lead and not sidelined. Far more decisions in Cabinet and less second-guessing from No 10. A return to what some academics think is the gold standard – Cabinet collective responsibility – and no more of that old Blairite ‘sofa government’. And indeed a whole set of machinery was set up so that the coalition would work, and that LibDem and Tory arguments would be sorted out. Officials were very happy with this new situation– or so the briefings said.

But thanks to some good detective work from the Constitution Unit we now know that the real action happens not in a well minuted, well attended arena where things are thrashed out between colleagues, but in a Sunday evening phone call between just two people, the Prime Minster and the Deputy Prime Minister. And while the sofa may not be Dave’s thing, we now also know that the other key meeting is on a Monday between the two top men and a very small group of their key officials and advisers.

I don’t know if Corry bothered to read the actual report, of if he limited himself to that article in the Telegraph (which I also linked to at the start of this post). Had he read the actual report, he would have learned that:

Cabinet and its committees have been greatly revived under the new government. Cabinet Committees now meet which under the last government never met. They are used as a forum for strategic and general policy discussions, as well as resolving the frequent differences which arise between Whitehall departments when addressing difficult policy problems. Membership on these committees is carefully constructed to ensure Lib Dem representation. But most of the differences resolved in Cabinet Committees are interdepartmental issues, not differences between the coalition parties.

Overall the new Cabinet system is a great deal more collegiate. It may have slowed things down; but to take time over gaining collective agreement is not necessarily a bad thing. Cabinet Office insist on papers being circulated in good time for Cabinet Committees, and on 10 days to clear anything by correspondence. That is part of the general ‘no surprises’ rule: there is much less scope in this government for bounces, because of the need to always consult the coalition partner. All papers for Cabinet Committees must state what has been done to ensure collective approval: that the policy has been checked against the coalition agreement; cleared with the Treasury; and with the parliamentary business managers. The chair and deputy chair (one from each party) must sign everything off.

What is decided by phone or more informal meetings between smaller groups of individuals at the heart of the coalition isn’t policy, but coalition management issues. At the outset, the Coalition had set up two coalition committees that were intended to deal with coalition management issues, the Coalition Committee and the Coalition Operation and Strategic Planning Group (COSPG). The first was to be the final arbiter of coalition issues. It has met only twice:

once at the beginning of the new government to establish ground rules about coalition management; and the second time a couple of months later, when the agenda included the health service reforms. But there have been no formal disputes. Coalition issues are resolved in informal meetings, not Cabinet or its committees. This is more efficient and less adversarial.

The COSPG isn’t a committee, it’s a working group with a membership of four: Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander as co-chairs, and Francis Maude and Lord (Jim) Wallace as the other members. It has hardly met as Letwin and Alexander have regular bilateral meetings instead.

I get the sense that people aren’t quite understanding the difference between coalition issues and government policy. Policy is being decided by cabinet committees. What is being resolved via more informal channels are coalition issues, which get sorted behind the scenes, informally, so that there is agreement by the time a policy gets to cabinet committee.

The Guardian chose to focus on the Deputy Prime Minister’s office being “ineffective”. The report does indeed say that the office “remains under-resourced and overstretched”. This is not surprising since the position of Deputy PM is normally more of an honorary one rather than a central figure with key responsibilities. Many PMs don’t even bother naming a Deputy PM. Consequently, there wasn’t any real Whitehall mechanism in place to accommodate the role Nick Clegg was to play in the Coalition government.

As the Guardian article also points out, the Liberal Democrats are spread too thin, according to the report’s findings:

Lib Dems argue that the Lib Dem minister in a department, regardless of status, has a remit to watch over all departmental business as the representative of the smaller coalition partner. That is necessary because Lib Dem presence in a department signals tacit acceptance of that department’s policies and actions. Yet in practice, many Lib Dem junior ministers have been unable to perform this role: they lack the capacity to monitor policy across a whole department. Lacking special advisers of their own, various ad hoc solutions have been reached, including additional support within their private office, relying more heavily on their parliamentary researcher, or calling upon the already overstretched Lib Dem Policy Unit.

Overall, however, the report paints a very positive picture of a healthy, functioning coalition. In particular, it notes that there is surprisingly little policy disagreement between the coalition partners:

Serious disagreements are as likely to be between ministers of the same party, in classic interdepartmental disputes (eg Ken Clarke vs Theresa May on justice versus security; Vince Cable vs Chris Huhne on business disliking climate change policies). Issues are seldom presented in terms of reconciling Lib Dem and Conservative views: it is generally about reconciling conflicting policy objectives, often based on traditional interdepartmental responsibilities.

There is far more in the report than has been covered in the media, including the functioning of the two parties in Parliament. I would encourage you to have a look at the actual report, particularly if all you have read are media reports.

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