The Constitution Unit


Coalition Government in the UK

January - December 2011

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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)

The Politics of Coalition

Further Information

Available for purchase from Hart Publishing

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 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

Media handling

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.


" 'Robert Hazell and Ben Yong's fine book The Politics of Coalition has...shown that enforced partnership has helped to revive the working of cabinet government.' - Philip Collins , The Times, 14th December 2012
" 'An essential resource for anyone with an interest in the Coalition, its workings behind the scenes, and its prospects for the future. Packed with facts, insights and telling detail.' Benedict Brogan, The Telegraph
" 'The Politics of Coalition provides an invaluable route map to the way the Conservative/Liberal Government works - and identifies important lessons to guide politicians, officials and the media if no party wins an overall majority at the next election.' - Rt Hon Peter Riddell, Director, Institute for Government
" One expects that, at least for the short term, courses in contemporary British politics will lean heavily on this book to introduce students to what happened after the Gordon Brown Government left office. Again, in the short run, fresh research on the British government and parliament will likely find this book to be a starting point....This is a remarkable piece of research in that it is based to a considerable degree on interviews with nearly 150 people....Serious followers of British politics will turn to this book frequently. It offers much structure and process about the operation of the British parliament that is not available in any other single source. -T. P. Wolf, British Politics Group Quarterly, Fall 2012
" One really couldn't get much closer to history in the making. Almost before the ink was dry on the coalition agreement, the experts from UCL's Constitution Unit were exploring behind the scenes in Whitehall and Westminster to discover the secrets of this strange new hybrid. The result is The Politics of Coalition, an incisive and insightful study of how the coalition government operates and the implications for party politics and the way Britain is governed...there is plenty of food for thought for all the parties in this absorbing book, as the coalition leaves its honeymoon period well and truly behind. - Alison Thomas, Public Servant, July 2012
" Robert Hazell and Ben Yong s work, The Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government Works, is a very readable volume, written mostly in the style of an introductory politics textbook and based on extensive interviews with the participants, including at very senior levels. The book is well done, readable, comprehensive and has a few gems lurking in the revelations from all the interviews ... -Mark Pack, Liberal Democrat Voice, 16th July 2012
" ... one of the most significant analyses of the dynamics of two-party government in Britain we've seen since 2010. This work is thoroughly rigorous in its approach, eschewing any kind of narrative in favour of academic assessments of various aspects of life in coalition . -Alex Stevenson, politics.co.uk, 19th June 2012
" 'The story behind ministerial doors is told by a remarkable book, The Politics of Coalition...' -Mark Hennessy, The Irish Times, 16th June 2012
" ...a genuine and significant contribution to serious scholarship has been made here. The analysis of the formation of the coalition and the drafting of the coalition agreement is comprehensive, and will be drawn on in future histories; and if the authors are able to draw on the same cast of characters to write a full obituary of the coalition after its demise, they will be able to produce an authoritative and memorable account. In the meantime, it is well worth reading by those with a serious interest in the way Britain's current government functions. -David Green, Progress, August 2012
" This book is pure gold - contemporary history at its best. It will fascinate those inside the Coalition, those who witness its developing emotional geography from Parliament and the general public keen to know how - what is, for the British - a very peculiar practice, is working out. ... ' -Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History, Queen Mary, University of London
" This book offers an excellent analysis of how Coalition government has worked in the UK. It explains through a series of succinct case studies how and why the coalition government works, what effect it has had on British politics and what may happen to it in the future. It should be an essential part of any modern British politics course. -Dr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics, Birkbeck, University of London
" The Politics of Coalition. How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government Works - Gianfranco Pasquino is Senior Adjunct Professor at the Bologna Center of Johns Hopkins University

Unit Seminars:

Other Seminars & Lectures:


Throughout 2011 we compiled media coverage of the coalition on a weekly basis.

Hung Parliaments & General Election

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.

Press Releases

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:

Articles & Comment

Previous research projects

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:

News & Media
Coalition Government on the Blog