Coalition or No Coalition?
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Let’s start with a simple question – who has studied the Coalition Agreement recently, or indeed in the past two or three years? Five years on from all those excited meetings in May 2010 it’s turned into a forgotten irrelevance. I refer of course to the Programme for Government (PfG), which was actually the second of three Coalition Agreements and was the more detailed and expanded version of the first interim agreement that was approved by the Federal Executive and MPs and Peers and put to the special conference in Birmingham. The point about it is that it’s all about policy, in detail and department by department – but it was all within that over-riding requirement to abolish the deficit.
One Word to rule them all, one Word to find them, one Word to bring them all and in the shadows bind them, in the land of the Treasury where the shadows lie. Austerity – that at least remains, and the threat of a lot more austerity from a new Conservative government hangs over this election like nothing else. But the rest is largely forgotten. As I write, the PfG can still be found on the government website though it may be swept away into the recycle bin of history with the Dissolution.
The eclipse of the PfG was inevitable. Policy is always a fragile and ephemeral thing and in this case it was open to being wrecked from the start by ambitious and footloose Tory Ministers – Gove, Lansley, Duncan Smith, and on most constitutional matters Cameron himself. The parties intended to refresh and renew the PfG for the second half of the five years in a Mid-term Review overseen by Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander, leading to “Coalition Mark 2” or even “Coalition 2.0”. This was soon found to be politically impossible, not least due to resistance from the Tory right wingers who had been ambushed back in May 2015, and by Liberal Democrats worried by the involvement in the exercise of right-wing groups in the party. All we ended up with were various check-lists of actions done, in hand and not yet done which were soon forgotten.
The third document agreed in May 2010 was the Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform (CASR). This set out “how we expect our Coalition Government to operate in practice” and how “working practices need to adapt”. It covers the composition of the government, collective responsibility, the functioning of the government (cabinet committees, civil servants etc), and the whipping systems in Parliament. The CASR states that “there is no constitutional difference between a Coalition Government and a single party Government, but working practices need to adapt”. What they meant is that they wanted a government in which two parties behaved as far as possible as if they were just one, and certainly not any basic changes to the Westminster system itself. The only innovative proposal in Westminster terms was a new Coalition Committee, “co-chaired by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister”, with equal numbers (five ministers) from each party. This was to be the main place for the resolution of major disputes but astonishingly it met only twice in 2010, and apparently never again.
The proliferation of new committees included two other curious bodies, not named in the CASR. One was called the Coalition Operation and Strategic Planning Group, co-chaired by Oliver Letwin and Alexander. This never seems to have met, shrinking from the start to cosy chats between the two co-chairs and culminating in the ill-fated Mid-term Review which they oversaw. The other was the now infamous Quad – the two leaders plus George Osborne and Alexander – which was at first a lower level means of sorting out problems which involved money. But it soon became the high level place for resolution of all disputes that could not be sorted at departmental level, signing off major Bills and sealing Coalition deals in the face of departmental and party revolts. In effect control of the Coalition had been seized in a top-level coup by the offices of the PM and DPM and the Treasury.
This top-down system fitted well with the aim, set out in the CASR, for the two parties to act as if they were one. The outcome for the Liberal Democrats is well-known. Our public support has dropped by two-thirds, our Councillor base by half, and our membership by a third. It is not clear how many constituencies are now effectively derelict since the party has a rather pointless and debilitating habit of tacking them on to a neighbouring Local Party. But my guess is that in Great Britain at least a third of constituencies no longer have a functioning LD presence.
Where does this leave us for next time? Like everything else after May 7th, it’s partly a matter of numbers. With the predicted 35 MPs or less, entering a coalition is neither practicable nor sensible. There are two kinds of coalition for the smaller party – flat or deep. You can, as in the past five years, try to have a presence in every department. Or you can go deep and take over complete departments. If we get fewer than 30 the flat system is impossible. Even with 40 or a few more it’s very hard, even with more Ministers from the Lords. Taking over whole ministries is superficially attractive, but a little thought shows that it would mean Liberal Democrat MPs and Peers being whipped to support legislation from most (wholly Conservative) departments. There were examples of this early on in the Coalition (Defra and DCMS) where the position was partly rescued by active and competent co-chairs of Liberal Democrat parliamentary committees (Andrew George and Don Foster) but with far fewer MPs there won’t be any such people around.
And as I pointed out in Liberator 368:
There will also be pressing questions of how to prevent five more coalition years from completing the destruction of the party as a countryside campaigning movement. A new marriage with the most rightwing Tory party in modern times will finish off a lot of people who are hanging on as they count down to the end of the present nightmare. A coalition with Labour will do nothing to resuscitate the party in Labour areas and is likely to result in another mass slaughter of Councillors, this time against the Tories. No wonder so many Liberal Democrats at all levels of the party are secretly hoping and praying for an overall majority next May.
Well, that’s not looking likely. Not only does it seem hard for a single party to get to 323 (326 minus the Speaker and Sinn Fein) but a majority formed from two parties or even more may not be possible, particularly if a Labour-SNP coalition is not on. The Tories are fed up with Coalition, Labour are wary (and a Labour-SNP coalition is being ruled out by both sides). So there is a growing belief that minority government is on the cards. Traditionally (the three post-election minority governments in the past hundred years) they haven’t lasted very long. The last to survive more than two years was (perhaps significantly) the Liberal Government formed after the second election in 1910 with the support of the Irish Nationalists.
But now we have the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA). There has been a lot of loose talk in the media about a minority Prime Minister cutting and running after a few months, but that’s a lot harder than it was. It needs a two-thirds majority of the whole Commons membership (434 members) voting to call an early election. Or a vote of no confidence (simple majority) followed by a failure to form another Government within 14 days. Given the likely politics of this, in relation to whatever the polls may say at the time, and the unwillingness of turkeys to vote for Christmas, it will not be easy. Of course the Act can be repealed but exactly the same constraints apply. Such a repeal will have to be part of a post-election agreement, and short of a Grand Coalition that may not be achievable.
The position of the SNP is interesting, to say the least. Threats by Nicola Sturgeon to “vote down a Tory Queen’s Speech” are just bluster – if it’s going to be voted down, it’s not going to take place. On the other hand, if she and her party are serious about sustaining a minority Labour Government they are going to have to think hard about their role at Westminster. If they hold most Scottish seats and continue to abstain on “English matters” they will fall into the exact trap that the Tories want to set with their “English votes for English laws” nonsense, handing the Tories an English/Welsh majority on legislation. And when the Commons send Bills to the Lords they will go to an SNP-free Chamber (their choice) where the very clear balance of power will be held by the Liberal Democrats. If Sturgeon wants the SNP to be treated seriously in helping to sort out Westminster – “to shake up and reform that discredited and outdated system” on behalf of “the needs and demands of those ordinary people, wherever they are in the United Kingdom” – she’ll have to find ways of taking part.
As for the Queen, she is not going to invite anyone to try to form a Government unless and until she is advised that they can survive a confidence vote. Any monarch would be foolish to turn up in her coach and trappings to read out a Queens Speech that was at high risk of being voted down. She will wait until negotiations are completed. One idea which may be too radical for the UK is to hold an indicative vote in the Commons before she sends for a potential PM (which would be possible since the Speaker will be in place). On the other hand the provisions for a no confidence vote under the FTPA cannot apply until a Government has been formed!
So what should we do? If we think that the future needs of this country include the existence of a radical Liberal party, we won’t take part in any new Coalition unless we have at least 50 seats. A comprehensive “Confidence and Supply” such as the Lib-Lab Pact is a no-no. If necessary we offer just enough, from the opposition benches, to keep a Government and Parliament in operation. Then we use our pivotal position in that Parliament, in both Houses and outside, to reform how it works. To sustain a more democratic set-up in which on legislation the Government proposes and Parliament disposes. And in which on holding the Government accountable the system begins to work.
Outside Parliament? We set about the task of rebuilding our party and our movement – both what we stand for and what we do.
Article first appeared in Liberator Magazine issue 371