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The Mechanics of the Coalition

Last Updated: Friday, June 17th, 2011

Professor Robert Hazell and Dr Ben Yong of the Constitution Unit at UCL recently produced a guide to how the coalition government has operated – functionally – during its first year. The report (attached) was based on a broad range of interviews with politicians, civil servants, backbench MPs, peers and party officials. Listed below are some of the conclusions that most interested me (with my own comments in italics):

“In terms of policy, the Lib Dems did well, with 75% of their manifesto commitments going into the Programme for Government, compared with only 60% of the Conservative manifesto (Constitution Unit analysis).” Hazell has admitted that this statistic – frequently quoted by Nick Clegg – could be a little misleading. Because the LibDem manifesto was smaller and closer to core policy commitments than the more expansive Tory manifesto, the 75%/60% comparison flatters them. In terms of what the Coalition is actually doing both parties are seeing an approximately equal percentage of their core ambitions implemented in full, or in part. Nonetheless a separate analysis from the University of Essex shows that while the Lib Dem manifesto was 3 points to the left of the political centre and the Tory manifesto was nearly 18 points to the right, the Coalition’s programme for government (PfG) stands at just 1.6 points to the right. These analyses of left and right are always contestable but it does suggest that the Tories have made at least as big a set of ideological compromises as the Lib Dems.


“Cabinet Office insist on papers being circulated in good time for Cabinet Committees, and on 10 days to clear anything by correspondence. That is part of the general ‘no surprises’ rule: there is much less scope in this government for bounces, because of the need to always consult the coalition partner.” Although these courtesies are generally observed there are exceptions that prove the rule. Last year’s announcement on child benefit, for example, that George Osborne made at the Tory Conference had not been seen by Iain Duncan Smith. Vince Cable was caught off guard by Cameron’s recent immigration speech and, just this week, by Osborne’s Mansion House speech on banking structure.


“The Quad of David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander is the main forum for resolving any coalition issues which have spending implications. It first came into being for the comprehensive spending review, in the summer and autumn of 2010, supplanting the role of the Coalition Committee. The Quad is sometimes expanded (‘the Quad plus’) to include other Cabinet ministers with a relevant policy interest.” Absolutely accurate but it wasn’t planned this way. The ten person Coalition Committee that also included Maude, Letwin, Hague, Cable, Huhne and Laws (before his resignation) was expected to be the driving force behind the PfG – . Originally expected to meet weekly it has only ever met twice. Perhaps if it had met more often, and as originally intended, the differences that have emerged between certain leading members of the government could have been better managed.


“Lib Dems argue that the Lib Dem minister in a department, regardless of status, has a remit to watch over all departmental business as the representative of the smaller coalition partner. That is necessary because Lib Dem presence in a department signals tacit acceptance of that department’s policies and actions. Yet in practice, many Lib Dem junior ministers have been unable to perform this role: they lack the capacity to monitor policy across a whole department. Lacking special advisers of their own, various ad hoc solutions have been reached, including additional support within their private office, relying more heavily on their parliamentary researcher, or calling upon the already- overstretched Lib Dem Policy Unit.” There is almost universal agreement that not only are Lib Dem junior ministers under-resourced – especially given their unique, Coalition-related challenges – but that the PfG’s cap on Special Advisers (SpAds) has greatly restricted the efficiency and effectiveness of ministers. Ministers complain of being distracted from core tasks by speechwriting or by not being able to appoint specialist researchers – who may have partnered with in policy development in opposition. Cameron seems unwilling to be flexible on this SpAd cap and the result is a reassertion of civil service power. Having listened to ministers for explanations of a policy the permanent departmental officials are now in charge of implementation although implementation often involves as political a set of decisions as the initial policy decision itself. Nowhere is this more true than in Number 10 itself. The Policy Unit has been staffed by civil servants recruited by the powerful Permanent Secretary, Jeremy Heywood. His and civil service power will grow as the political advisers that surrounded Cameron in opposition and arrived with him in government start to move on (as is now imminent).


“In the Commons, the government has a comfortable majority of around 80 MPs. In the Lords, the Coalition has a more effective majority over the Opposition than the previous Labour government (310 peers to Labour’s 243). Given its majority in both houses, the government has behaved in a majoritarian way towards Parliament. This has led to accusations from parliamentarians of taking Parliament for granted. These criticisms were voiced particularly loudly in relation to the first year constitutional reforms, and they have also been leveled at the health service and welfare reform bills. This has been exacerbated by the excessive haste by which this legislation has been pushed through both houses.” One of the side-effects of careful construction of policy positions among blue and yellow ministers is that there is greater reluctance to allow backbenchers to unpick positions that have been carefully and painstakingly reached. This difficulty is doubly complicated by the fact that the backbench pressures are so diverse. The Social Liberal (or left-wing) Lib Dem backbenchers are pulling one way and the Tory Right in a very different way, making it hard to compromise policy positions that have satisfied the Orange Liberal and Cameroonian Conservative groups that dominate the centre. The Lords is looking like it will be more of a problem for the Coalition than the Commons. George Osborne cites opposition in the Lords as the principal reason for overhauling the NHS reforms. The Lords also threaten elected police chiefs, welfare measures and, this week, they voted to dilute the European Bill’s referendum lock. Labour has a good whipping operation in the Lords and many Tory peers are less than spritely. The Coalition is already losing one in four of all divisions in the Upper House according to Professor Hazell.


“The paradox of coalitions is that (unlike single party majority governments), the pressures in the early years are towards consensus, but towards the end the focus is on differences. So going forward, the challenge for the Lib Dems will be to demonstrate their party’s distinctiveness.” The pressures won’t just come from the Left. The Right is beginning to get its act together in terms of policy formulation. Tory MPs David Davis, John Baron and Brian Binley are among those drafting a new prospectus for a Conservative majority.


“In the spring the Lib Dems were developing plans for a formal review of the coalition agreement to develop a revised programme for government for the second half of the Parliament. The process was to be led by the Federal Policy Committee, starting this summer, with a draft of the revised coalition agreement (‘Coalition 2.0’) being debated at party conference in spring 2012, and the final version being approved by party conference in September. These plans now seem to be in abeyance. It would give too much scope to the malcontents in both parties to have a 12 month policy review with prolonged sniping from both sides. And it would run completely counter to the Lib Dems’ attempts to distinguish themselves, if they were seen to be getting even more firmly into bed with the Conservatives. So instead there may be individual policy reviews, in areas like climate change or family policy, but policy will be renewed through green or white papers rather than a revised coalition agreement. The delayed white paper on public services reform may be one example, and an early test of whether the Lib Dems can highlight their distinctive contribution.” This was news to me and all the more interesting as a sign of declining cohesiveness.


Tim Montgomerie



Paul Goodman on why Britain won’t walk away from the €urozone bailouts: “Let’s imagine that the Chancellor did go to the next meeting of EU Finance Ministers and “do a Thatcher” – bang the table and demand our money back… In doing so the Chancellor would have to say more or less what I’ve said – namely, that Greece is a goner, that Ireland, Portugal and others may be too, and that Britain has no intention of taking money from its taxpayers and lending it to countries that are unlikely to pay it back.  Such words would be likely to bring about precisely the events of which they warn.  For the British Government to declare that it has no confidence in the entire European system in general – and the Euro in particular – would be to hurl a nuclear bomb into the markets.  There would a financial stampede.  And if Britain delivered the kick which brought the whole tottering edifice down in a heap, there would be consequences. Namely, that the Euro-Blob would blame Britain in general, and its Coalition Government in particular, for the collapse from now until doomsday.” More via

Andrew Lilico still wants Britain to shout “stop”: “If it is not viable at all, and it’s only a matter of who calls time on the whole charade, why should we in Britain be sending tens of billions of good money after bad in a futile attempt to keep the show on the road for another few months?” More via

Also see Andrew’s Twenty Things Should Know About The Greek Crisis:

Tim Montgomerie lists the winners and losers of the NHS saga. One loser is Steve Hilton: “The PM’s guru was a big believer in NHS reform. It was one of the components of his “everything must have changed by 2015″ ambition. Hilton looks to have lost much of the NHS reforms as well as his ambition to revolutionise public service delivery. I wouldn’t bet against Hilton leaving Downing Street by the end of the year. If he does go it would be a big moment for Cameron. Hilton presses Cameron to leave his comfort zone and be more radical than is his instinct. The Coalition would be impossible if Hilton had his way on everything but it needs his restlessness.” Read the full list via

Paul Goodman praises George Osborne’s focus: “So will the Government act on a broad front or a narrower one?  Will we have local taxes or Treasury centralism?  Liberal optimism or Tory caution? Hannan or Osborne – The Plan or His Plan?  As I’ve written before, I believe that the Lansley reforms would work (though not fast enough to stave off an “NHS crisis”).  It’s true that the Health Secretary has had a raw deal from Downing Street, and Conservative MPs are sorely tempted to back his plans just to get one over on the “yellow bastards”.  But the Chancellor is right: the Government is trying to take on major school, hospital, police, welfare and public sector pensions reform all at once.  This is too much, too fast.  The Government risks losing sight of the Big Priorities wood for a mass of trees.  It must dump some of its baggage if it’s to find a way out and regain its perspective.” More via

Lord Boswell of Aynho on the significance of David Cameron’s vaccination announcement: “The GAVI Alliance’s work to date is a prime example. Since their establishment in 2000 GAVI have vaccinated over 288 million children and saved an estimated 5 million deaths. The vaccines supplied by GAVI tackle the biggest killers in the developing world. Pneumonia, the leading cause of under-five deaths globally, is entirely preventable and this year the GAVI Alliance has rolled out the life-saving vaccine in some of the poorest countries across the world.” More via

Jason Grove of Policy Exchange warns against one side effect of Michael Gove’s target for schools to ensure 50% of their pupils attain five good GCSE passes: “As our recent report,  Room at the Top, highlighted, floor-targets have the tendency to put pressure on teachers to focus a disproportionate amount of their time on those students who are on the C/D borderline, rather than on those slower – and indeed higher – achievers.  To take an example, the proportion of pupils who gained an A*, A or B grade in Maths only improved by 0.4% between 2001/2 and 2009/10, while the proportion gaining C grades over the same period went from 21.3% to 26.5%, an improvement of 5.2%.” More via

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