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will power sharing work? The survival of the Lib-Con project rests as much on the practicalities of power-sharing as on policy deals. Either way, parliamentary reform will be its legacy robert hazell
On his first day in office, standing alongside Nick Clegg in the garden at No 10, David Cameron proclaimed: “We are announcing a new politics… where the national interest is more important than party interest... It can be a historic and seismic shift in our political landscape.” In the press coverage that followed, many columnists focused on the ideological fit between the two men. Others admired their astute tactics, in particular how Cameron had marginalised his old guard and modernised his party overnight. Both leaders appeared to believe that they could last a full term, and change the way that Britain is run.
he public seems to agree, with a YouGov poll in mid-May showing that six in ten people support the decision to join forces. Yet now we need to take a longer view, and look at some of the pitfalls that lie ahead, especially given Westminster’s majoritarian culture and the ingrained adversarial attitudes in British politics, media and law. What lessons should Clegg and Cameron learn from the conduct of coalition governments abroad? And what are the real chances of achieving a “new politics” of co-operation, by delivering the constitutional reforms that would change the political landscape?
o one on the Conservative side was prepared for this, psychologically or practically. Many are still in denial. Cameron is blamed for not delivering an outright majority, and the old
Robert Hazell is director of the Constitution Unit at UCL
guard will continue to snipe at him, through the columns of the Tory press and websites such as ConservativeHome. Tory MPs—led by David Davis—were quick to attack the proposed 55 per cent threshold for any government resolution to dissolve parliament. If the Conservatives pull ahead in the polls and the Liberal Democrats are trailing, the temptation to cut and run may become overwhelming. The Tories are the only party that can afford a second election, having raised more funds for the last one than Labour and the Lib Dems combined. Their fundraising for the next has already started.
he Lib Dems have long dreamed of holding the balance of power, yet they, too, were unprepared. Indeed, their shock was almost as great as the Tories’, despite recent experience of coalitions in Scotland and Wales. From these the party should have learned basic coalition management: the need for mutual trust; procedures for information sharing and jointly signing-off policy; formal ways to resolve disputes, and the importance of a pool of trusted advisers to keep such disputes under control. Nonetheless, the evidence from other countries says the pressure is greater on junior partners. They risk being tarnished with unpopular decisions, even if they did not support them in private. The government’s achievements will likely be credited to Cameron; the contribution of the junior partner is less visible to voters. Within the government they will struggle to keep up, with fewer resources and ministers. The pressure on Clegg, in particular, will be intense. He will have to clear the same policy papers as Cameron, but with a
36 · prospect · june 2010 new politics: power sharing clark jonty
fraction of the staff. He has rightly avoided the temptation to head a major department; he now must insist on his own policy unit and team of advisers, not just a small private office.
n adversarial and impatient media will be a problem, too. In Europe, where coalition negotiation is the norm, there are on average 40 days between an election and the formation of a government. In Scotland, the first Lib-Lab coalition agreement took a week, and the second took two weeks. The negotiators meeting in the cabinet office had no such luxury, due to the media pressure to reach an agreement. The press will be watching for the first signs of splits, and the first hostile briefing from No 10. Andy Coulson, the Conservative communications director, may be just as savage in defending his master as Alastair Campbell, who did the same job for Tony Blair.
he rushed deal meant that there was no time for the coalition agreement to be properly costed or subjected to feasibility testing. Whitehall officials were on hand to advise, but the agreement of 12th May is, in essence, a political document: a merger of two manifestos. After asserting the overriding importance of reducing the deficit, it contains a long list of policy commitments that involve or imply increased public spending. Many further negotiations will be needed to reconcile this fundamental contradiction. The first Queen’s speech debate in late May will begin to expose the gaps, as will Chancellor George Osborne’s emergency budget on 22nd June. A full public spending review, likely in the autumn, will make matters worse, while tensions will grow between Osborne and business secretary Vince Cable over tax policy and banking regulation. Conservative flagship measures, such as Michael Gove’s Swedish-style free schools, are bitterly opposed by Lib Dem-controlled local authorities. And Europe will prove an underlying source of tension. (See Andrew Adonis, overleaf.)
If keeping the coalition together will be a challenge for Cameron and Clegg, it will be doubly difficult for everyone else in Britain’s majoritarian political culture. Parliament, in particular, will become a test of whether the “new politics” has arrived. Government ministers will have to talk not just to their own parliamentary party, but to unhappy MPs from their coalition partners as well. If they don’t, parliament will quickly become the forum for intra-coalition tension, especially given that many Conservative MPs already resent the number of ministerial posts given to the Lib Dems (more than Cameron needed to, on a proportional basis).
ere other countries may provide a useful guide. In most continental European countries, where proportional voting systems are the norm, minority or coalition government is also the norm, leading to more consensual politics. But generally more useful for us are the lessons of Canada, Scotland and New Zealand—where minority or coalition government has had to develop within the Westminster tradition. Canada has the same first-past-the-post system as Britain, but its last three federal elections have produced no overall majority. The subsequent minority parliaments have been fractious, and june 2010 · prospect · 37