Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule – and both commonly succeed, and are right. - Henry Louis Mencken
It seems a few readers have been looking for information on the procedure for electing a Prime Minister.
In a parliamentary system such as we have in Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, etc., the Prime Minister is not directly elected by the voters. They are a Member of the legislative body in question, and so elected as the representative of whichever constituency they run in. They are also the leader of a political party. They only become Prime Minister if their party ends up forming the government, either on its own or as part of a coalition or other arrangement.They do not have to be the leader of the party which has the most seats in the legislature – rather, they are the leader of the party which can command the confidence of the House. For example, in the UK, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, was elected to the House of Commons as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Witney. Because the Conservatives formed the government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Cameron is now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Similarly, in Canada, Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party, was elected to the House of Commons as the Member of Parliament for Calgary Southwest. The party won a majority of seats in the last general election and so forms the government, making Harper the Prime Minister of Canada. Voters in the UK did not vote for Cameron directly for the post of Prime Minister, nor did voters in Canada vote directly for Harper as Prime Minister. They were elected in their constituencies as an MP.
Political parties choose their leaders by various means, but to simplify, there is usually a leadership contest, where interested persons can put themselves forward as candidates. To be a candidate they have to be a member of the party, and each party will have certain other requirements that will have to be met, such as gaining the support of a certain number of party members or sitting Members of Parliament, etc. The leadership campaigns will usually include debates between the various candidates, and the candidates will travel across the country meeting party members in different parts of the country to try to gather their support.
Most parties will then have a leadership convention, where party members will vote for which candidate they want as leader. Again, each party will have different procedures in place. Some parties elect delegates from each constituency to attend the convention and cast votes. Others give each member a vote if they attend the convention. Others will mail out ballots to every member so that they can vote even if they don’t attend the convention, etc.
Some political parties in some countries limit the choice of leader to members of the party’s elected caucus, meaning only the party’s elected MPs will choose the next leader. Party members have no say in the matter. Some parties combine both – the caucus will do the initial selection of candidates and narrow the choice down to two candidates, and then the party membership at large will have the final say between those two individuals. In the end, the result is the same, one candidate will be elected the leader of the party. (If you want to know how a specific political party chooses its leader, I would recommend visiting that party’s official website and finding the party’s constitution. That document usually details the process the party follows for selecting a leader. If that information is not readily available on the party’s website, you could also try contacting an elected representative of that party and asking them how the party chooses its leader.)
If that party is already the governing party, the new leader automatically becomes Prime Minister. They don’t have to wait until a new election is called. Often, a new leader will decide to call an election soon after they take over the party in order to seek a new mandate from voters for the party under their leadership, but they are not obligated to do this. They can just as easily serve out the remainder of the parliamentary term before going to the polls.
Sometimes, there is no actual leadership contest. For example, when Tony Blair announced that he was stepping down as leader of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown became leader without facing any leadership contest. This wasn’t because no one else was interested in the position, it was because an agreement had been reached that Blair would step down and Brown would become leader. A similar situation occurred in Canada when Jean Chrétien stepped down as leader of the Liberal Party. It was expected that Paul Martin would be the next leader (it was Martin’s supporters who pushed Chrétien to resign). One other MP did enter the race, Sheila Copps, but it was a foregone conclusion that Martin would win, and he did, with 94% of the vote. Sometimes, the party might feel there isn’t time for a proper leadership race, and so the party caucus decides on a leader. This occurred in Canada following the 2008 election. The Liberals did not do well in that election, and the party leader, Stéphane Dion, announced he would resign. However, because it was a minority government situation, the party felt it couldn’t afford to go through a normal leadership process and so the caucus decided that MP Michael Ignatieff, who had finished second to Dion in the previous leadership contest, would become party leader.
Sometimes a party chooses a leader who doesn’t have a seat in the legislative body. In those instances, the party appoints an acting leader among sitting MPs to deal with business in the House (if the House is in session at the time) until the actual leader can win a seat, either in the next general election, or via a by-election. For example, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, Christy Clark was elected leader of the Liberal party to replace outgoing leader and Premier Gordon Campbell. Clark had been out of politics for a few years, and so did not have a seat in the provincial legislature. She won the party leadership on February 26, 2011, and was sworn in as premier on March 14, 2011, even though she did not have a seat. When Campbell resigned as leader, he also resigned his seat as an MLA, and a by-election was held on May 11, 2011, which Clark contested for and won.
It is important to remember that voters in countries such as Canada and the UK elect parliaments, not governments, and that it is the elected parliament that determines which party or parties will command the confidence of the House and form the government. Who leads that party is not what matters – what matters is that government maintain the confidence of the House. For example, when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party, and by default became Prime Minister, there were frequent accusations made in the media that he didn’t have a mandate because he had not been elected to that office. What people meant is that Brown had not called an election soon after taking over the party leadership, to see if Labour, with him as leader, could win another mandate from the people. However, it isn’t accurate to say he had no mandate because he wasn’t elected. The 2005 general election had resulted in Labour winning a majority of seats in the House of Commons, and thus the party was fully entitled to serve out the entirety of its term.
The fact that Labour had changed leaders during that term was essentially an internal party administrative matter; it did not impact the configuration of the House of Commons, and Labour still commanded the confidence of the House. Brown was elected as an MP, he was also selected by Labour as their leader. To say he wasn’t elected Prime Minister is unfair – no Prime Minister is elected by the people to that post, they are only elected as a local MP. Similarly, as mentioned above, Christy Clark became Premier of British Columbia when she won the leadership of the Liberal Party earlier this year. British Columbia has fixed-term elections, and the next election is scheduled for May 2013. There is nothing in the fixed-term election act that requires an earlier election because the governing party changes leader at some point during a parliamentary term. The only thing that would potentially prompt an earlier election is if the Liberal Party lost the confidence of the Legislative Assembly, or if Clark decided to ignore the fixed-term election law and call an early election.
This may strike some as bizarre and undemocratic, but it isn’t if one understands how the system works. We elect MPs, who form a parliament. Parliament decides which party or group of parties will command the confidence of the House and form the government. Who leads that party is up to the party to decide.
Michael Moore, Secretary of State for Scotland, stated yesterday that independence for Scotland would require two referendums. The first would be an advisory referendum, which would seek a mandate for the Scottish government to negotiate with the UK government at Westminster to work out an agreed position. Any settlement deal reached would then also need to be put to the Scottish people in a referendum for the UK government to approve it.
Moore’s two-referendum statement was immediately rejected by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond.
I admit to not having followed the evolution of the Scottish independence movement, and so I am busily researching the issue as it will undoubtedly remain very topical over the course of the next four years. Consequently, I am bound to miss out some key point here and there, and would appreciate more informed readers correcting me when needed. What I have been reading, however, seems like a very strong case of déjà vu. For anyone familiar with the Quebec independence saga, there are very striking similarities.
According to Mr. Moore, a binding referendum would be for the UK government to determine, according to UK constitutional law, but existing rules and regulations would allow for an advisory referendum to be held. An advisory referendum is one wherein voters make their views known on important issues without thereby binding legislation to action. Consequently, a referendum question seeking a mandate to negotiate some form of independence for Scotland would not be a binding referendum on independence itself – it would simply indicate if a majority of voters in Scotland would like such talks to proceed. Hence Moore’s opinion that a referendum of that nature would require a second vote, which would be binding. The second referendum would be to seek approval of the deal negotiated by the Scottish and UK governments.
This is rejected by Mr. Salmond, who argues:
Acknowledged experts have made it clear that the people of Scotland have the right to choose independence on the basis of one referendum agreed by the Scottish parliament, on a published proposal, which is then implemented – exactly as was done for devolution in 1997.
Any Canadians who remember the first Quebec referendum in 1980 (or who studied it in school) should be experiencing that déjà vu I mentioned above. In 1979, the Quebec government made public its constitutional proposal in a white paper entitled Québec-Canada: A New Deal. The Québec Government Proposal for a New Partnership Between Equals: Sovereignty-Association. The province-wide referendum took place on Tuesday, May 20, 1980, and the question on the ballot was:
“The Government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad — in other words, sovereignty — and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will only be implemented with popular approval through another referendum; on these terms, do you give the Government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada?”
As we can see, this was clearly a two-referendum approach. The first referendum sought a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association with Canada, and promised that the results of the negotiations would only be implemented if approved by Quebecers in a second referendum. Of course, there was no second referendum because the the government of Quebec failed to get a mandate to negotiate, with the proposal defeated by a 59.56% 40.44% margin.
While reading up on the issue of Scottish independence, and more specifically, the Scottish National Party’s position, I came across a very interesting article in the Caledonian Mercury. The article claims that the English media and political establishment are “some way behind the curve” on the issue of Scottish independence, “debating, fighting and challenging constitutional arguments that were current a decade ago but which are not topical today.”
The article claims that Alex Salmond’s views on independence are radically different to what he and the SNP espoused in the 1990s. It would seem, from my reading, that the SNP is now pursuing what the Parti Québécois under René Lévesque pursued back in the day: sovereignty-association.
The article refers to a blog post by SNP policy advisor Stephen Noon, the “brains and heart of the SNP in government”, and in that post, Noon writes that the main problem facing the anti-independence cause is:
they will be arguing against independence in a way that ignores the reality of what independence would be. They will be attacking so-called separatism when separatism is not on the agenda.
Noon goes on to quote Alex Salmond from 2007:
“Independence will bring many opportunities for our nation, and with those opportunities also greater success and prosperity. And with independence I look forward to a new partnership with our neighbours in England – one where we will be equal partners, not surly lodgers.
In that new relationship the Queen would remain the Head of State in Scotland. The current parliamentary and political Union would become a monarchical and social union – United Kingdoms rather than a United Kingdom – maintaining a relationship first forged in 1603 by the Union of the Crowns.
Independence for Scotland in the 21st century would reflect the reality of existing interdependence: partnership in these Islands and more widely across Europe.”
Going back to the Caledonian Mercury article, we learn that senior SNP sources told Angus MacLeod of The Times (which I can’t link to because The Times is behind a paywall) that:
Scottish independence was entirely compatible with some form of set payment from the Scottish to the English Government, covering such items as defence and the diplomatic service, which would be retained for the UK and run by London, as they are now.
Professor James Mitchell of Strathclyde University interviewed 80 senior nationalist politicians to discover what they meant by independence:
“I was surprised by just how pragmatic the senior members were in terms of what they understood independence to mean. I would describe what they are thinking about as being much more of a confederate arrangement within these islands than the traditional concept of independence.”
In other words, it sounds as if what the SNP wants isn’t so much actual full-on independence, but federalism:
At its heart, this new approach would involve the handing upwards of certain powers, over defence, macro-economic management and foreign affairs to run on behalf of both countries, as is done now.
The major difference is that this would be at the discretion of the smaller country which would hand over money to pay for them, not have that money held back – as is the case at the moment.
Of course, all of this is pure speculation at this point, since the SNP has not produced a white paper or any form of published proposal that would form the basis for a referendum. But it is nonetheless interesting that the debate, at least for the SNP, has moved from full on independence to some form of independence-lite. The question that then arises is this: what is the difference between independence-lite and increased devolution?
Stuart Crawford asks just that in a guest piece in the Caledonian Mercury. Strongly in favour of full on independence for Scotland, Crawford writes:
There has been much thinking out loud and policy on the hoof, but what seems to be emerging is a loose consensus amongst some on a concept inevitably labelled “independence-lite”. Although there doesn’t appear to be a formal policy statement on this – yet – most people think it describes an arrangement whereby Scotland would raise all its own finances (full fiscal autonomy) and then “buy” what it needs in terms of defence and foreign policy – and possibly other things such as macroeconomic policy – from the rest of the UK.
In terms of a future Scottish defence policy under this arrangement, senior SNP members have even suggested that Scotland would wish to be able to “choose” which operations “its” defence forces participated in. A little knowledge is clearly a dangerous thing, and we can only hope that wiser heads will point out the difficulties with such a proposition, not least of which is in terms of the party’s current position on NATO.
Be that as it may, independence-lite is an interesting idea, and worth further discussion in a more intellectually coherent manner in due course. What I find difficult at the moment, and perhaps others do too, is how the concept differs fundamentally from “devolution-max”, or indeed any of the other models of enhanced devolution which have been mooted from time to time.
Because, to the layman at least, independence-lite and devolution-max look almost indistinguishable. And given that the opposition parties in the Scottish parliament are more or less all signed up to some form of enhanced devolution, is this a sudden outbreak of consensus?
Also interesting is that Crawford believes that the SNP’s conversion to independence-lite/sovereignty-association/federalism – whatever you want to call it – is purely pragmatic. The SNP knows they couldn’t win a referendum on full independence, so they are willing to abandon “the primary principle behind its raison d’être” in favour of what they hope might be actually achievable:
Faced with mounting evidence that a vote in the Holyrood elections for the SNP is not, per se, a vote for Scottish independence, party apparatchiks are now watering down its independence message to make it more widely palatable, electorally speaking.
It is important to keep in mind that the Scottish Parliament does not have the authority to declare Scotland an independent country. This is true of the province of Quebec as well, as I discussed in this post. However, a strong yes vote would make it difficult for the UK government to refuse to negotiate. Another key point: in the event of a “No” vote in a referendum, that would apparently be the end of things – no one wants to turn this into another Quebec:
Alex Salmond has described the independence referendum as a once-in-a-generation event.
All the parties – unionist and pro-independence – are keen to avoid the situation which has unfolded in the Canadian province of Quebec, where debate over multiple independence referenda over the years has been dubbed the “neverendum”.
At worst, a “No” result in the referendum could spell the end for the SNP as a mainstream political force.
It’s also likely focus would shift back to the debate over more powers for Holyrood – with full fiscal autonomy, as opposed to relying on the Treasury block grant, probably becoming a more serious option.
Of course, that remains to be seen. I don’t have that much trouble imagining a scenario where the result is very close, and those in favour of some form of independence for Scotland decide that another kick at the can is justifiable down the road. And a “No” vote certainly wouldn’t need to spell the end for the SNP. Scottish voters might find that they like having a strong, pro-Scotland party in power, even if they don’t want to follow it down the road to full independence. After all, two failed referendums haven’t led to the demise of the Parti Québécois in Quebec.
Lady Thatcher will not be seeing Sarah Palin. That would be belittling for Margaret. Sarah Palin is nuts. – Anonymous source to The Guardian
I don’t write much about Australia, not because of lack of interest in how parliamentary politics unfolds in that country, but because there is rarely ever any coverage of Australian politics here in Canada. I can access online news coverage of course, but not being very familiar with the key players and parties makes it that much more difficult to get a feel for how politics play out. It’s enough of a challenge to follow British politics from Canada, and at least I have access to BBC World, lots of British friends I can consult, and I regularly follow House of Commons debates and parliamentary committee hearings online. Plus, there are simply more similarities between Canada and the UK, what with our unelected upper houses and what appears to be a stronger adherence to older parliamentary traditions.
That said, I read a most interesting piece on the BBC recently about Question Time in Australia’s House of Representatives. The article turns out to be the result of a heavily edited interview UK blogger Iain Dale did with the BBC World Service after he tweeted: “The UK House of Commons is often accused of behaving like a playground. It has nothing on the Aussie House of Reps. Unbelievable behaviour.”
Regular readers of this blog know that I have written a few posts highly critical of Question Period as it unfolds here in the Canadian House of Commons (see for example here, here and here and one post about Oral Questions in a provincial legislature). I find the UK version of oral questions far more productive, PMQs notwithstanding.
Australia’s Question Time is similar to Canada’s in that questions are addressed to any minister, including the PM. In the UK House of Commons, as I’ve explained many times in other posts, the PM answers questions once a week only, Wednesdays at noon, for a half hour. Every day, however, there is a ministry-specific oral question period where the ministers responsible for that department field questions for 15 minutes to a full hour, depending on the department in question, with smaller departments grouped together to fill the entire hour. PMQs is like Canada’s Question Period – it’s usually full attendance, and tends to be quite rowdy at times. The department questions are much calmer, quieter affairs.
Australian Question Time is also a very rowdy affair. I was most intrigued by Dale’s impression that the Speaker was perhaps partly responsible for that state of affairs:
When the prime minister is answering questions, and the speaker is shouting “order! order!”, she does not sit down but carries on, ploughing through it. It is a great spectacle but not a very edifying one.
In Canada, the UK and Australia, when the Speaker stands, whichever MP has the floor, be it the PM or some backbencher, they sit down immediately and everyone shuts up. At least, they’re supposed to. In the Canadian House of Commons and some provincial legislatures (perhaps all, I can’t say for certain):
Each Member’s desk, as well as the Speaker’s Chair, is equipped with a microphone. A microphone switching console, staffed by console operators, is located at the front of the gallery at the south end of the Chamber. Individual microphones are activated when a Member is recognized by the Speaker. Only the Speaker has the power to activate his or her own microphone (it may also be activated by the console operator); when the Speaker’s microphone is activated, the Members’ microphones will not function. (House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd Ed.)
Consequently, when the Speaker stands, all other microphones are turned off. MPs can still yell at each other across the floor of course, but what they say isn’t picked up very well or at all.
I am not exactly certain if things work quite the same way in the UK House of Commons, since members do not have individual desks or seats, but sit along benches. Microphones are suspended from the ceiling of the Commons, rather than placed on individual desk, and I don’t know if these are turned off when the Speaker rises.
You can watch Australian Question Time on the House of Representatives website, and I decided to do just that to see for myself. I have to say, I agree with Iain Dale. I don’t think the Speaker helps matters at all. According to House of Representatives Practice (5th Ed.), only the microphone of the Speaker is live all the time. The nearest microphone to Member is switched on when he or she is making a speech. As I stated above, the rules of debate in Australia, as in Canada and the UK, state that when the Speaker stands, whoever was speaking stops talking and sits down.
During Question Time, it seems, the Speaker doesn’t bother to get up. He simply orders people to come to order and behave more respectfully. Because he doesn’t stand, as Dale notes, whoever has the floor keeps on talking. The Speaker’s microphone is live too, so his admonitions to other members carry live over top whichever Member is also speaking. It creates a huge jumble of noise, with at least two people talking on top of each other (the Speaker and the Member who has the floor), plus other Members catcalling in the background.
One blogger objected to Dale’s assessment of Question Time, but seems to have missed the essential point Dale was making, which was that the Speaker wasn’t properly controlling the situation. If he stood, which, in theory, would stop whoever was speaking from speaking, rather than simply remain seated and talk over the Member speaking by ordering others to come to order, it would be a less chaotic affair. I do appreciate that it is a hung parliament and a very partisan one at that – Canada is no stranger to such a state of affairs – but I have to say that even the Canadian House of Commons at its worse in recent years never got as bad as what I’ve watched of the Australian Question Time.
Dale isn’t alone in his assessment of Australia’s rowdy parliament, but according to this article from the Financial Times, the current state of affairs is a big improvement over how things used to be:
The system seemed desperately in need of reform, but that’s exactly what has just happened. Questions are now limited to 45 seconds and answers to four minutes. Four minutes is a short time as a warning of nuclear destruction; it’s an eon when listening to Julia Gillard.
“If you had seen it before, you’d understand what’s been achieved,” says Rob Oakeshott, the independent whose vote was crucial in returning Gillard to power and one of those imposing change. “Before, she might have been standing up for 20 minutes and talking about whatever she wanted. The speaker has actually sat the prime minister down and said ‘You’re not being relevant.’ That hasn’t happened in a hundred years.” One other aspect of reform is that the minor parties are allowed to get a word in edgeways – but only after 3pm, when the main television broadcast has finished.
From what I can tell, Australia’s Question Time shares one unfortunate thing in common with Canada’s Question Period: it is scripted and heavily controlled by the party Whips. Members are told by party leaders what questions they will ask, and the Speaker is told which Members to call on. However, unlike the Canadian House of Commons, at least there is more time allocated for both questions and answers. In the previous Parliament, the parties in the Canadian House of Commons had agreed to 35 seconds for each. I don’t know if the new Parliament has changed that.
I am not writing this as a put down of Australia’s system and perhaps I’ve been “lucky” and managed to view some of the worst examples of Question Time. It simply stands in stark contrast to what is more familiar to me, Canada’s question period and UK Questions. I do disagree with the blogger who was upset by Iain Dale’s observations when he dismisses oral question periods in the 21st century as no longer being about accountability, but simply being media events. That may well be the case, but it shouldn’t be, and it doesn’t need to be.
In Britain, politics is now sequential rather than adversarial. Strong differences of opinion have emerged over public spending and Ed Miliband is more left wing than he lets on in public. But no party seriously thinks it can win from anywhere but the centre ground. New Labour was a triumph of triangulation. Tory modernisers understood a decade ago that their party must be more like New Labour if they wanted to be in government. - Amol Rajan, “True colours? Is Blue Labour the way forward for the left?“, The Independent, 6 June 2011
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.
It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership. - Nelson Mandela
Back in February, I wrote about a musical being produced in the UK based on the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. Entitled Nicked, it was staged in Suffolk on 30 April, as part of the HighTide Festival. You can read a review of it here.
And even better, you can see a performance of one of the numbers from the show on YouTube. The song is called Tinderbox and features Labour leader Ed Miliband trying to drive a wedge between Nick Clegg and David Cameron. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would love to see the entire show.
I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left. - Margaret Thatcher, former UK Prime Minister