Coalition Government in the UK
January - December 2011
In a 12-month research project we studied coalition governance in the UK. Examining how the new coalition government works is vital, as the UK appears to be moving toward a multiparty system, making hung parliaments more likely in the future. Thus, these formative years may determine how future coalitions are perceived and governed. Practitioners will want to know how best to manage coalitions; and later coalitions tend to draw on the experience of previous coalitions.
Coalition governments face two sets of difficulties. One is instability: coalition governments in Europe are more short lived than single party majority governments; and half of coalition governments end because of conflict between the governing parties or within them. So procedures to manage conflict and resolve disputes between the coalition partners are particularly important.
The second difficulty is the unity/distinctiveness dilemma. A coalition must devise means of ensuring its constituent parts remain coordinated and coherent if it is to govern effectively—this is the problem of unity. But coalitions are also composed of separate political parties. They must try to ensure that their own policies and values are implemented, to satisfy internal factions and party supporters. In short, parties to the coalition must also preserve their identity—this is the problem of distinctiveness. These competing considerations are fundamental to understanding how a coalition government acts in relation to administration and policy-making.
Thus, our central research questions are:
- How can coalition government remain stable?
- How can coalition government reconcile unity in government with the need for the parties to project distinct identities?
We will engage with politicians and senior officials throughout the project, through private seminars and meetings. We hope that the project will result in better preparedness for the next coalition government, whenever that comes; better Whitehall guidance; better understanding in Parliament of the requirements of coalition government; and better understanding of how coalition government works by the media and the general public.
This project is funded by the Nuffield Foundation. It has also received the approval of both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. It will run for 12 months, from January to December 2011. The project is led by Professor Robert Hazell and Dr Ben Yong, and is supported by Peter Waller and Brian Walker, two of the Unit's honorary Senior Research Fellows. If you are interested in any aspect of this project, please contact either Professor Hazell or Dr Yong.
The Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Lib Dem Government Works Robert Hazell & Ben Yong (Hart, 2012)
Available for purchase from Hart Publishing
Politics of Coalition is the tale of two parties struggling to maintain
the first coalition government at Westminster for over 60 years. What
have been the challenges they have faced in the first 15 months, and
how have they managed it?
With the authorisation of Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, Robert Hazell and Ben Yong have interviewed over 140 ministers, MPs, Lords, civil servants, party officials and interest groups about the coalition and what impact coalition government has had upon Westminster and Whitehall.
The Politics of Coalition tells how the Coalition has fared in the different arenas of the
British political system: at the Centre; within the Departments; in Parliament; in the parties outside Parliament, and in the media. It will be of interest to politicians, policy makers, academics, students and anyone interested in how the UK Coalition works in practice and not just in theory.
Key observations and lessons in the book
- We conclude: “The Coalition in its first eighteen months set a model for harmonious and unified government which may prove hard to follow.” We were told again and again that it was proving to be a more united government than its single party predecessor under Gordon Brown. But in year 3 its unity and stability will really be tested, with mounting tensions over the deficit reduction strategy and Europe.
- The parties thought hard about a comprehensive mid term review, but decided against. At this stage, it would only accentuate divisions.
- The government could bring in fresh faces in a reshuffle, and draw on the larger talent pool of the Lib Dems in the Lords.
- The Conservatives must take care under pressure to stay generous to the Lib Dems.
- The government could still survive if the Lib Dems were to quit, by substituting a minority government depending on a confidence and supply agreement.
- An electoral pact could bring gains for the Lib Dems in the short term, but prove to be a double edged sword in the long term.
Lessons for future Parliaments in case they’re hung
- All parties need to write their manifestos with coalition in mind, as well as single party government.
- To keep open the possibility of coalition, parties need to maintain working relations with each other up to the election. Labour got this wrong in 2010.
- If there is another hung parliament more time should be allowed for interparty negotiations.
- The parties could also allow more input from the civil service to the negotiations.
- Before the debate on the Queen’s Speech the Commons should hold a vote of confidence in the new Prime Minister (an investiture vote). That would confirm the outcome of the negotiations, and enable the Commons to approve any coalition agreement.
Lessons for the major coalition partner
- Maintain a golden rule of good faith and no surprises
- Ensure that the party leadership has an efficient mechanism for consulting the wider party. The Conservatives were lacking this in 2010.
- Remember that coalition limits the opportunities for advancement, and strains the loyalty of backbenchers. Reward them in other ways.
- Ensure that minority party staffers are integrated into the No 10 operation
Lessons for the minor coalition partner
- Try to choose cabinet posts which will score with the voters. Think hard about whether to go for breadth or depth of influence.
- More special advisers and other support are needed: include this in the coalition agreement.
Lessons for the parties in Parliament
- Develop effective backbench committees with good access to senior ministers
- Involve those committees in developing future policy
Hopes that spin was dead because of the need to check out policy with two centres of power were not fulfilled. The unity/distinctiveness dilemma which is inherent in all coalition governments was often played out in the full glare of publicity or in lobby stories. Overarching coalition messages tended to get lost.
Some of this “differentiation” but by no means all of it, was choreographed between the PM and DPM. Andy Coulson the first No 10 director of communications ‘had an instinct not a strategy’ for coalition publicity management. His departure coincided with an overdue strengthening of the centre of government. But media management became overshadowed by phone hacking, Murdoch and what became the Leveson agenda.
Date and Time: Tuesday 26 June, 6.00 pm
Venue: Reading Room, British Academy, 10 Carlton House Terrace
Speakers: Lord O'Donnell
To mark the launch of The Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government Works, The Constitution Unit and Hart Publishing will hold a book launch event.
The Politics of Coalition is the tale of two parties
struggling to maintain the first coalition government at Westminster for
over 60 years. What have been the challenges they have faced in the
first 15 months, and how have they managed it?
With the authorisation of Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, Robert Hazell and Ben Yong have interviewed over 140 ministers, MPs, Lords, civil servants, party offi cials and interest groups about the coalition and what impact coalition government has had upon Westminster and Whitehall.
The Politics of Coalition tells how the Coalition has fared in the different arenas of the
British political system: at the Centre; within the Departments; in Parliament; in the parties outside Parliament, and in the media. It will be of interest to politicians, policy makers, academics, students and anyone interested in how the UK coalition works in practice and not just in theory.
- The Conservatives and Coalition Discipline Prof Tim Heppell (November 2011)
- The Coalition & the Constitution Prof Vernon Bogdanor, chaired by Robert Hazell (June 2011)
- The Black Widow Effect? A Pessimist's Take on the Coalition for Clegg & Co. Prof Tim Bale, chaired by Ben Yong (March 2011)
Other Seminars & Lectures:
- School of Public Policy Seminar Series: Inside Story: How the Coalition Government Works (November 2011)
- The Hansard Society: Are Westminster and Whitehall Coping with the Coalition? Robert Hazell & Ben Yong (June 2011)
Throughout 2011 we compiled media coverage of the coalition on a weekly basis.
The Unit has conducted previous research on coalition governments.
In 2009, the Institute for Government funded a Unit project looking into minority and multiparty government.
In 2002, the Unit looked at coalition governments overseas:
In the run up to the election of 6 May 2010, the Unit commentated on the parties' campaigns and promises. We posted informative guides and forecast what might happen. All of the information we disseminated is collected here.
- Fixed-term parliaments and the 55% threshold (14.05.10)
- Constitutional reforms high on agenda of new coalition (12.05.10)
- Constitution Unit advice on coalition government (12.05.10)
- The Constitution Unit compares the Labour and Conservatives positions on electoral reform and their appeal to the Liberal Democrats (07.05.10)
- Conservative/Lib Dem negotiations on political reform: mission impossible? (07.05.10)
- Confusion over constitutional position in a hung Parliament (04.05.10)
- After the Rotten Parliament comes the Reform Parliament (09.04.10)
Constitution Reports & Briefings
- Coalition Government in Britain: Lessons from Overseas by Ben Seyd (republished version)
- Coalition reports republished for 2010: foreword by Robert Hazell
- 84: Coalition Government in Britain: Lessons from Overseas by Ben Seyd summary briefing
- 110: Coalition Government in Scotland and Wales by Ben Seyd
Constitution Unit Guides:
- Stabilising minority Parliaments and minority governments
- Votes at 16
- Fixed-term parliaments
- How the parties' manifestos compare
- The right of recall
- How the parties' political reforms compare
- Which of the parties' political reforms will be implemented?
Articles & Comment
- Meg Russell's research cited in the Guardian Plumping up House of Lords smacks of a political fix (17.05.10)
- Meg Russell's appearance on the Westminster Hour (16.05.10)
- Robert Hazell on Radio 4's Today programme (14.05.10)
- Robert Hazell cited in the Guardian Backbenchers gear up for first rebellion over 55% Commons plan (14.05.10)
- How to square the electoral reform circle Meg Russell writing in Comment is Free (10.05.10)
- Robert Hazell on the World at One (10.05.10)
- Robert Hazell writing in the Sunday Times Keep calm and carry on talking: Whitehall has been preparing for this for months (09.05.10)
- Don't get your hopes up for electoral reform within one parliament Robert Hazell writing on Comment is Free (08.05.10)
- Brown cannot just say 'I don't know Ma'am says Robert Hazell in the Financial Times (08.05.10)
- Wall Street Journal article Close election could 'hang' parliament (06.05.10)
- Scotsman article Broadcasters warned over hung parliament 'winner' and Financial Times article Scotland's lessons in leadership (06.05.10)
- Robert Hazell on Channel 4 News talking about a hung parliament (05.05.10)
- Mail on Sunday article by Robert Hazell Whichever way you look at it, Clegg calls the shots (02.05.10)
- Robert Hazell and Peter Riddell on the Westminster Hour (02.05.10)
- Mark Chalmers on The House, CBC (01.05.10)
- Multi-group letter to party leaders on a commitment to the Wright Committee reforms (27.04.10)
- Guardian pieces: A memo to Nick Clegg and letter advising on a hung parliament (26.04.10)
- Robert Hazell's appearance on the Daily Politics (26.04.10)
- Robert Hazell writing in the Guardian Nick Clegg: the power balancer (19.04.10)
- Comment: Party leaders should be challenged to respect the will of the House of Commons: reform to give backbenchers more power must be implemented (16.04.10)
Key Coalition Documents
The Initial Coalition Agreement (11 May 2010)
The Programme for Government (20 May 2010)
The Agreement for Stability and Reform (21 May 2010)
The Cabinet Committee System (22 May 2010)
The Coalition: One Year on (11 May 2011)