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Codifying the process of government formation through the UK Cabinet Manual

16 December 2014

UCL research demonstrated the importance of clear guidance, through a Cabinet Manual, to demystify the process of  government formation. In the UK's hung Parliament of 2010, the draft manual proved critical in ensuring a smooth transition to the UK's first coalition government in 60 years.

Following the General Election of May 2010, the United Kingdom found itself with its first hung parliament since 1974. This result was widely expected, but also feared across the political establishment, the media and the wider public as having the potential to lead to political and economic chaos. How to transition to a stable government, in a country with little recent experience of hung parliaments was unclear.

The Constitution Unit at the UCL School of Public Policy has longstanding history of research on government in non-majoritarian systems; a body of work which proved invaluable at this time. Professor Robert Hazell had earlier led a comparative study of coalition governments in four parliamentary systems, and in 2009 he embarked on a new research project in partnership with the Institute for Government which looked at minority and coalition governments in Westminster-style parliamentary systems.  They suggested that guidance be issued before the election particularly on the following issues: how the Queen should appoint a prime minister in the event of a hung parliament, what powers could be exercised by the previous government on a caretaker basis, and how the civil service could better support the process of government formation. Professor Hazell's team recommended a strong set of explicit guidelines following the model of the Cabinet Manual used in New Zealand.

Over the following weeks, Professor Hazell and his colleagues worked closely with the Cabinet Office to persuade them of the inadequacy of existing guidance and the need for a comprehensive Cabinet Manual. In response, the Cabinet Secretary announced that such a manual would be prepared, and the key chapter on government formation would appear before the 2010 election. When the chapter appeared, it contained the key recommendations of Hazell's team, including the innovation that the civil service provide support for political parties negotiating the formation of a coalition government.

Until this chapter appeared, the process of government formation had been shrouded in uncertainty, and there was widespread speculation that the uncertain election result expected in 2010 would lead to chaos and affect the financial markets. With the publication of clear guidelines, however, the so-called Five Days in May went smoothly. The media, already briefed through a series of lectures, articles and private briefings, covered the results accurately, and the British public witnessed a smooth and orderly transition to the first coalition government in 60 years.

After the election, Professor Hazell's recommendation that a Cabinet Manual on the New Zealand model be prepared began to be fully implemented. A UCL researcher and expert on the New Zealand Cabinet Manual, Dr Ben Yong, was seconded to the Cabinet Office and Professor Hazell provided advice and evidence to policymakers on successive drafts. In 2011 the complete Cabinet Manual was published and, for the first time, the United Kingdom had a complete set of guidance on the conduct and operation of government.

Part funded by the Institute for Government.

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