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Are Westminster and Whitehall Coping with the Coalition?

17 June 2011

Michael White discusses the Unit's coalition government project in the Guardian's Politics Blog

Nick Clegg is doing better - but will it be enough?

Would the 2010 coalition have been conducted on more businesslike and less cordial terms if the spikier, less accommodating Huhne had been in the No 10 Rose Garden that fateful afternoon? Would the Lib Dems have been tougher? Would it have got off the ground in the first place?

I'm not sure [...]

Let's switch to the sober analysis of "how the coalition works" provided to the Hansard Society last night by Professor Robert Hazell and his young sidekick, Ben Yong, government-watchers at UCL's Constitution Unit.

It was complicated, and some people (including most prime ministers) get easily bored with the machinery of government questions, so I'll stick to the "junior coalition partners" side of the briefing.

Basically, it's all been easier than Oliver Letwin feared when he predicted that the dispute-resolving coalition committee would be in "almost permanent session". Why? Because most policy disputes are resolved via informal mechanisms, explained Hazell (who used to be a senior civil servant himself), either by David Cameron and Clegg or by the "quad" (those two plus Osborne and Danny Alexander) or their senior officials.

Secondly, most disputes are not between the two parties, but within them: think Huhne and Vince Cable over energy policy or Teresa May and Ken Clarke over whatever it is this week. Civil servants like the way the coalition works, by the way – there's more respect for formal cabinet committee work and less friction than under TB and GB, they say.

I suspect that means civil servants wield more power in a highly inexperienced government. Some aspects of coalition power brokerage do not work well: the DPM's under-resourced office, special advisors and the 10 junior Lib Dem ministers in departments in which there is no Lib Dem cabinet minister (there are five) and they are supposed to keep an eye on every policy.

Yong's function last night was to contrast the easy flexibility at government level with the rigidity such deal-making causes in parliament. Think about it. Once you agree something between ministers, it becomes harder to unpick under pressure from irate backbenchers, leftie LDs or rightie Tories. [...]

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