The Coalition after the reshuffle
What do personnel changes tell us about political undercurrents? Often what we already know. Thus with Lords reform and the boundary review kicked into the long grass, it is unsurprising that Mark Harper has not been replaced as Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, and his duties are instead being taken on part-time by Chloe Smith alongside her other work for Francis Maude.
However, in other areas last week’s changes may indicate shifts of emphasis, if not outright changes of direction, which might in turn place new strains on the relationship between the two coalition parties. Changes at the top of Justice, Environment , and Transport, for instance, have all been interpreted as indicating possible policy shifts in areas with significant potential for coalition disputes.
The important question though for the Coalition is not where policy disagreement might occur, but how it is managed. The coalition agreement is still referred to as “a tablet of stone” (as Nick Clegg put it), but in practice it becomes less useful as a joint platform as time passes and priorities change, an argument made previously by the Institute. The ebb and flow of politics in the next phase of coalition will require ongoing negotiations across all government policy.
The ‘quad’ of Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, and Alexander has emerged as the primary dispute resolution mechanism for the Coalition. It will remain so. But as the vote on Lords reform demonstrated, if the Conservative leadership cannot carry its parliamentary party, agreement in the quad is only half the story. Disagreement will become fraught and irreconcilable unless there is clear focus on where compromise can be reached, with divergence tolerated elsewhere.
Does David Laws’ return signal this approach? His eclectic brief includes toddlers, nuclear weapons, and economic growth. The Liberal Democrats relinquished their ministerial post at the MOD last week but chose one issue – Trident renewal – which is sufficiently important to them to require continued personal involvement. It remains to be seen if this issue-specific approach is effective. Nick Harvey, the outgoing minister, appears to doubt it.
These decisions are about political strategy, not policy. The reshuffle shows that the Liberal Democrats have crossed the point in their famous strategy graph where asserting their identity is prioritised over government unity. Nick Clegg’s decision to trade ministerial jobs in the MOD and FCO for ones in Defra, DfID, and the Wales Office gives Liberal Democrats more visible influence over policies which appeal to party supporters. It will also set up potential public arguments with Conservatives, such as Owen Paterson in Defra, which will help differentiate the priorities of the two parties. Effective communicators like Jo Swinson and Norman Lamb have been promoted to express the Liberal Democrat message.
On the Conservative side, a number of junior appointments reflected a leadership desire to take firmer control of economic policy. Michael Fallon and Matthew Hancock have been sent to BIS, Nick Boles to the planning portfolio in DCLG, and Paul Deighton to a new economic delivery post. These moves led to predictions of tensions with Business Secretary Vince Cable, who launched his industrial strategy this week. So far, the two sides appear to be on the same page, but pressures within both parties for a more assertive differentiation strategy (over issues such as labour market deregulation) may put this unity to the test.
These developments will complicate life for civil servants who serve both blue and yellow masters. Yet as any who served during the Blair-Brown years know, conflicting government agendas and ongoing political skirmishes are not novelties of the post-2010 coalition. Coalition can mean that government gets messier but perhaps also more transparent and more honest about divergent views.
However, if government unity disintegrates and separate party identities are increasingly reasserted, difficult questions will arise about whom civil servants are accountable to. Do they answer primarily to their minister, their secretary of state (perhaps from a different party), the prime minister, or the Government corporately? The traditional doctrine – that civil servants are accountable to the government of the day, and the Government to Parliament – will come under strain as the Coalition splinters without yet severing. The line between politics and government, which has never been clear, is likely to become more blurred still. There is an urgent need to clarify both the Ministerial Code and Civil Service Code, to ensure that politicians and officials know how to deal adequately with the challenge of a coalition government pursuing divergent priorities.
Navigating this challenge requires revisiting conventions, and thinking freshly about the relationship between government and civil servants. This is why the Institute for Government has embarked on a new project looking at the accountability of senior civil servants to ministers, and to parliament. The Coalition reshuffle makes this work that much more important, and the questions that much harder to answer.