Coalition: the final countdown

8 May 14

As the coalition government enters its fifth and final year in office, what should be the rules of engagement for civil servants caught in the middle of increasingly fraught relations between politicians?

Yesterday the UK’s first postwar coalition government entered its fifth year in office with every expectation of reaching the end of the fixed parliamentary term. This is an achievement in itself – there were many who doubted the coalition’s viability and longevity at its inception. But how will the coalition work in its final year, and how should Whitehall and the parties operate to ensure effective government up till and beyond the election in May 2015?

The Institute for Government interviewed around 30 senior officials and special advisers across government about how the coalition is working at present and their concerns about governing in the final year. Over the last nine months we have also looked internationally for useful lessons and alternative models, publishing case studies on experience in Scotland, Ireland and Australia. Yesterday we published our final report on the coalition in year five, as well as a report on pre-election contact with the Opposition.

In the pre-election period – as at any other time – the civil service must maintain a clear divide between government and party business, with officials barred from tasks such as manifesto writing. In a single-party administration, however, officials are often asked to carry out analysis or provide advice on policy ideas that the party of government may then incorporate into its manifesto.

As one official reflected: ‘Ministers at any stage can ask for policy advice on something… It’s incredibly easy, you just have to ask the right questions, because it’s always your right as a minister to request advice from the Civil Service.’

This means civil servants can be called upon by ministers to support – indirectly and wholly within the rules – the development of the governing party’s election manifesto. But the context of coalition makes the situation much more complicated.

In policy areas where the two coalition parties are at odds – the UK-EU relationship, immigration, green energy or more recently over knife crime penalties – what should officials do if asked to work up policy ideas for one side of the coalition only (or for both sides simultaneously but separately)?

With no agreed government position for officials to help develop, the line between government and party business can become uncomfortably blurred.

This is no hypothetical concern. We found evidence that civil servants are already being placed in this difficult position. One interviewee told us: ‘There are occasions … where you do a bit of advice, particularly for the secretary of state … where they, as the most senior minister, basically say, “We want you to do this and we don’t want you to share it with anybody yet. This is a piece of advice for me.”’

We also found that there was no consistent view about what the response from civil servants should be. In some departments, we were told, there was a culture of openness within the ministerial teams – with both sides copied in to all submissions. But in other parts of government, interviewees described the creation of parallel channels of advice in sensitive areas. And as political relationships grow more strained over the coming months, one official feared, there was a risk of ‘planning blight’ where ‘people don’t push out into more difficult, controversial territory’, resulting in a deficit of future policy thinking in contested areas.

Reflecting these concerns, we argue in favour of greater clarity and agreement at the very top of the coalition about what the rules of the game in the final year of coalition should be.

In a detailed set of recommendations in our report, we say the two coalition parties should have the explicit right to receive confidential civil service support in developing manifesto propositions. This would enable each party to draw on the expertise of departments led by the other party, without the secretary of state being copied in or having the right of veto.

We further recommend that support given in this way should be of a different order to the normal provision of civil service advice to ministers on agreed government policy. Both parties should be provided with information and analysis – for instance on the costs and feasibility of manifesto propositions – to help parties improve their policy plans. But officials should not be asked to develop a range of options for parties or to recommend a specific course of action. This was the model adopted successfully by the Scottish coalition in its final six months up to May 2007.

We also suggest that over the longer term, there should be a move towards an integrated system for supporting pre-election policy development across all major parties, meaning the current narrow scope for pre-election contact with the Opposition (as discussed in our parallel paper on the subject) would be broadened to allow the civil service to comment upon policy implementation.

Since the coalition was unexpectedly formed in May 2010, Whitehall and the parties have adapted to the unfamiliar context of multi-party government fairly successfully, despite something of a tendency to view the coalition as a one-off. It has not been plain sailing, but the Cameron-Clegg administration looks set to reach its intended destination of May 2015 intact.

However, the final year will bring a further set of novel challenges, and our research shows the need for careful thinking and greater clarity to ensure effective government through what will undoubtedly be a fascinating period in British political history.

Akash Paun is a senior researcher at the Institute for Government. This post first appeared on the IfG website

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