Why Cameron and Clegg need to reflect on the working of the coalition
The coalition has, so far, worked much better than anyone could have predicted before May â€” thanks obviously to the harmonious lead of David Cameron and Nick Clegg but also to the initial work by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat negotiators and by Sir Gus Oâ€™Donnell and his team in the Cabinet Office.
The agreements both on policy and procedures were reached far more quickly and smoothly than in other countries with coalitions. The revived Cabinet committee system is ensuring that decisions can be taken by both partners and possible problems anticipated.
But that was only stage one. As Akash Paunâ€™s report, United We Stand?, shows, further changes are neededÂ â€”Â to prevent both Nick Clegg at the centre and Lib Dem departmental ministers from being overloaded.
Strengthening the Deputy Prime Minister’s office
There is an inherent asymmetry in the coalitionÂ â€”Â in numbers, resources, experience and preparation. Apart from Jim Wallaceâ€™s six years as deputy First Minister in Edinburgh and Tom McNallyâ€™s three years by the side of the late Jim Callaghan in 10 Downing Street, none of the Lib Dem ministers had any experience of office before May. More to the point, none expected to be in office. This has put strains on their ability to handle the volume of work inherent in government.
Hence, the proposals in the Paun report for strengthening Nick Cleggâ€™s office; for extending the number of special advisers to departments headed by the other party, mainly, but not exclusively, benefitting the Lib Dems; and for ministers in departments where there is no Lib Dem.
There is considerable warniness in Whitehall about creating a potential alternative power base within the centre which could be seen as rivalling the Prime Minister. But strengthening the civil service support for the Deputy Prime Minister is really to allow him to do his job as joint leader of the coalition.
There is still a slightly patronising sense in Whitehall that the Lib Dems are inexperienced Â (as many admittedly still are), and that there are not many potential more Lib Dem advisers out there, rather than recognising the validity of their calls for more support.
The dual role of junior ministers
Underlying these proposals is the more basic question of how to adapt the ingrained attitudes of single party government to a coalition. Â The “us” of government is split rather than single.
The natural tendency of Whitehall is to minimise and bury differences rather than to acknowledge them, which is both inevitable, and indeed desirable, if the identities of the two parties are to be preserved.
Officials need to regard Tory/Lib Dem relations as not being party political, and therefore to be avoided, in the traditional sense, but, rather, as essential to the working of the coalition.
It is also no longer satisfactory for a Secretary of State to treat an under-secretary in a large department with, say, six ministers as of no account when he or she is the sole representative of the Lib Dems there.
Admittedly, Tory under-secretaries are treated in the same way. But Lib Dem junior ministers have a dual role: their formal ministerial responsibility may be minor, but the political role is much more important. This involves changes in the usual views of ministerial hierarchies.
Similarly, because most big departments are headed by Conservatives, they naturally get the credit for big positive announcements, while the Lib Dems get ignored, while getting the blame for unpopular decisions.
On policy, there is, however, a broader recognition that Â the coalition agreements of May on policy and procedure are not the last word for the whole parliament.
Indeed , the programme for government has already been supplemented by the June Budget and will be superseded in many areas by the spending review on October 20. Â With the current parliamentary session lasting for two years until the spring of 2012, there is a strong case for a mid-term review in early 2012 â€”Â and that seems likely to happen.