08 May 2015

Second terms can be times of great achievement for prime ministers. But with a slim majority there can be hidden dangers too.

David Cameron sounded distinctly relieved when he announced that he would be leading a majority government for the first time, rather than a coalition. Obviously, he was personally pleased to be able to answer his party critics by – in contrast to 2010 – leading his party to an overall majority for the first time since 1992, especially when the outcome was so unexpected.

But there has been a slightly naïve tendency to treat the winning of a bare majority as conferring unlimited freedom of manoeuvre, and to describe it as a working majority. It is not as straightforward as that. In some respects, Mr Cameron may discover that he was in a stronger position during his coalition with the Liberal Democrats, which produced a Commons majority of about 70. Even though there were a record number of rebellions by backbench MPs of both coalition parties, these were mostly ‘noises off’ which did not threaten the government’s majority. So the Conservatives won parliamentary approval for the vast majority of their 2010 programme, and were not held back (although there were a few exceptions, mainly to do with human rights and security issues).

Now the Conservatives have an effective majority in the mid-teens, taking account of the Speaker and with the Sinn Fein MPs not taking their seats. And, much more important, the Conservatives have roughly 100 more MPs than Labour. So whatever the 56 SNP MPs and others do, the Conservatives should be well-placed for the first year or 18 months of the parliament.

There are two important caveats. First, majorities can disappear, either through deaths and scandals leading to by-election defeats, or through defections. Second, governments are increasingly vulnerable to rebellions by their own backbenchers. Research, pioneered by Lord Norton and continued by Professor Philip Cowley of Nottingham University, has highlighted the longstanding trend of increasing numbers of backbenchers rebelling against the party line, on a large scale and more frequently than in the past. As Jill Rutter points out in her blog, based on her personal experience of the 1992 Downing Street, the Major Government’s initial 21 majority was quickly eroded for both these reasons. The government had ceased to have an effective majority long before it formally disappeared in late 1996.

Just as with minority governments, behaviour has to be adapted if a majority government appears vulnerable to parliamentary defeats and rebellions. Controversial legislation is dropped or watered down to appease potential rebels. And a search is made for non-legislative ways of taking action.

The beginning of a second term is also a time of maximum potential and self-confidence for a prime minister. It is then that he or she feels that they have learnt the lessons from their first terms about how Whitehall works. As the Institute’s Centre Forward report points out, it was in 2001 – after Labour’s second election victory – that the Blair Government created several new units at the centre and pressed ahead with big policy changes.

A second term government is in good position not to rush decisions, and to know what needs to be done to take forward its priorities. The Institute has identified – in its pre-election briefing notes and in Tom Gash’s report on machinery of government changes – the key organisational challenges facing any new administration, and also the dangers of making changes without adequate preparation.

In government, few situations are as clear-cut as they might appear. And while this may appear to be a time of liberation for Mr Cameron and senior ministers, there are also traps ahead.

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