Robert Hazell is Director of UCL’s Constitution Unit
Popular belief holds that coalition government is quarrelsome, unstable and indecisive. Opinion polls suggest the British public holds this view. But for most informed observers, the first year of the Cameron/Clegg coalition has proved remarkably stable. And it has been decisive – for its critics, too decisive.
The Constitution Unit at University College London (UCL) has been carrying out a year-long research project on the new coalition government. With the authorisation of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Sir Gus O’Donnell, we have interviewed 120 ministers, advisers, civil servants, parliamentarians and stakeholder organisations. Thanks to them,
we now have a good understanding of how the coalition works both in Whitehall and at Westminster.
So what have we found? For a start, formal cabinet government has been revived. Cabinet committees which didn’t meet under the last government now do. And the cabinet system is a great deal more collegiate than it was under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Things may have slowed down in order to gain collective agreement, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Cabinet and cabinet committees meet regularly, but deal mostly with classic interdepartmental differences of the kind with which all governments have to grapple.
Our research has found that coalition issues are rarely resolved in cabinet committee, because they are generally dealt with beforehand. They are handled informally in a range of groupings, all characterised by close personal relationships: this is less adversarial and more efficient.
Key coalition issues are decided in weekly bilaterals between Cameron and Clegg: or the quad of David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander, which deals with any decision that has spending implications. Danny Alexander and Oliver Letwin have frequent meetings and are crucial to the coalition’s negotiating machinery. The parties’ top advisers and officials (Ed Llewellyn and Jonny Oates; Jeremy Heywood and Chris Wormald) also meet regularly to discuss coalition issues.
Our interviews in departments suggest that the coalition has made limited difference to the daily workings of Whitehall. Ministers have not divided on party lines. Serious disagreements are as likely to be between ministers of the same party, in classic interdepartmental disputes (for example, Ken Clarke versus Theresa May on justice versus security; Vince Cable versus Chris Huhne on businesses disliking climate change policies). Officials seldom feel the need to present issues in terms of reconciling Lib Dem and Conservative views. More often, they are seeking to reconcile competing external interests.
In Parliament it is a different story. Not for MPs and peers the cosy camaraderie of the rose garden handshakes. Instead it is a more distant and businesslike relationship. We have found that in both houses, the coalition parties remain firmly separate. The media keep looking for conflict between the coalition partners, but coalition government may also intensify conflict within parties. The most obvious division is that between front- and backbenchers. Decisions are now taken outside the parliamentary party and within the government, leaving backbenchers feeling particularly alienated.
Rebellions in this parliament are at record levels: the first nine months saw more rebellions on government benches than Tony Blair faced in his entire first term. This has not been helped by a heavy legislative programme that’s being pushed through in haste. The parliamentary parties have revived backbench committees to make their voices heard, to maintain contact with the front bench, and to reassert their party’s separate identity. The Lib Dems have created 14 back bench committees, and the Conservatives have followed suit, with the 1922 Committee spawning a range of sub-committees.
In terms of stability and unity, then, the coalition has been a success. Problems have mostly been suffered on the Lib Dem side. In the first year their top priority was to show that coalition government works, and that they could be an effective party of government. They have done that, but they also need to demonstrate their difference and distinctiveness. Here they have been much less successful, because their policies and their influence have been drowned out by the actions of the larger party. Too often they are reduced to arguing that their influence consists of stopping the Conservatives from doing something worse.
Part of this is not their fault. The Lib Dems are still reeling from the loss of their state funding, given only to opposition parties. With just four press officers where previously they had 13, they struggle to publicise their distinctive contribution. But in part it may also result from a critical decision, made at the start of the coalition, to go for breadth over depth, seeking to place one minister in every department. If the Lib Dems are to make a difference that is visible to the electorate, they may need to think about concentrating their ministerial effort in a few key departments or policy areas.