08 May 2012

It’s relaunch week. Tuesday’s joint appearance by the prime minister and his deputy marking two years of the coalition and Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech are designed to seize back the political agenda. But what is likely to be accomplished by these renewal initiatives?

The government’s intention is clear: to turn a page on the difficulties of the past few months and recapture the political agenda from its opponents, including those within the governing parties. But government renewal, as a forthcoming Institute for Government report will argue, is a tough task made more complex still by the pressures of coalition government.

At its simplest, the joint press conference of Cameron and Clegg serves a useful symbolic function in emphasising the continuing strength of the core relationship at the heart of the coalition. From the start, the personal chemistry and trust between the two party leaders was central to the smooth functioning of the government, and compares favourably to the troubled relationship between Angela Merkel and two successive leaders of the liberal FDP party, for instance.

Symbolism is important, but when it comes to renewal of a more substantive kind, personal relations can only get you so far. The story of the past year has been about a growing restlessness and unease between leadership and rank and file in both parties at the compromises inherent in coalition government. This pressure has led both leaders to spend more time emphasising the differences between their parties as well as the shared ground.

The political logic of “differentiation” may be sound, but the risk is that it becomes harder and harder over time to agree upon significant new initiatives to which both sides will accede. Senior government figures from Ireland, Germany and Scotland all told us that the scope for policy innovation and agility during the term of a coalition government can be constrained in this way.

In the UK, the mainstream of both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are generally willing, if through gritted teeth, to implement the original coalition agreement. But new initiatives are increasingly likely to incur the response that if a policy was not part of the initial deal then the party’s MPs and peers are not bound to support it. This formed part of the Liberal Democrat case against the NHS reforms, and is heard as a justification for Conservative MPs and peers to oppose Lords Reform (the Programme for Government commits only to “establish a committee to bring forward proposals” on an elected upper chamber).

One option open to coalition governments is a full review of the initial policy programme. This might allow for a second grand bargain in which both sides secure some important and distinctive policy wins, while the government re-emphasises its core priorities after taking into account changed economic circumstances. As an Irish minister involved in the 2009 programme review in Dublin told us, this process can act as a useful “reality check”. But although a Coalition 2.0 agreement at Westminster has been mooted, it seems the government has shied away from this approach, fearful of a backlash from within the two parties or embarrassing deadlock.

A more limited mid-term stock take and progress statement might still be on the cards, and could serve a useful purpose. Unlike coalitions in some other countries, however, the UK’s Programme for Government was crafted largely separately from decisions about detailed spending plans. Consequently, the coalition faces an additional challenge in negotiating the next spending review, expected in 2013, when the two parties will presumably commit to spending plans stretching beyond the next election.

That other staple of government relaunches at Westminster – the reshuffle – is also complex in a coalition. Indeed, in power-sharing democracies such as Germany and the Netherlands, the very concept of the mid-term reshuffle is virtually unknown. Even powerful prime ministers such as Tony Blair faced difficulties in carrying out a smooth reshuffle, as senior figures refused to go along with proposed moves and ad hoc departmental changes had to be made to accommodate them. In a coalition any reshuffle must also maintain the delicate balance between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and between the competing wings of the two parties.

All this is likely only to get more difficult. Coalitions that expect to part ways at the next election – and a Swedish style pre-election coalition pact between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats looks highly unlikely – often drift rudderless towards the end. At worst, they fall apart altogether, as did Ireland’s Fianna Fail-Green government in 2011.

This week’s relaunch may provide at best a short-term boost to the coalition. However, to generate enough momentum to lift free of its current malaise, the government will need to review and renew its central economic growth and public service reform agenda, while granting each party a few totemic policy wins that do not undermine that shared agenda.

The government is still only two years in to a planned five-year term. However, in practice the coalition has relatively little time left for important new initiatives before the approach of the next election forces the parties onto an openly competitive rather than cooperative footing.