16 September 2010

Coalitions involve wholly new ways of governing. Most other European countries understand that, as do the Scots and Welsh. But the adjustment in Whitehall among both ministers and official is still not complete.

The coalition has, so far, worked much better than anyone could have predicted before May — 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 O’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 Paun’s report, United We Stand?, shows, further changes are needed — 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 coalition — in numbers, resources, experience and preparation. Apart from Jim Wallace’s six years as deputy First Minister in Edinburgh and Tom McNally’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 Clegg’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  (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.  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.

Mid-term review

On policy, there is, however, a broader recognition that  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.  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 — and that seems likely to happen.

In one of their Sunday telephone chats, or their face-to-face meetings two of three times a week, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg need to reflect on the working of the coalition. After the initial, largely justified self-congratulation, they should accept the case for some further adjustments to ingrain coalition thinking and procedures.


I have worked in the public sector for more than 25 years and because it is important for my job that I remain neutral, I try to stay outside of the inherent politics as much as I can.

A lot of our work is influenced by CLG and although five out of six of our ministerial team are experienced or relatively experienced conservatives, we are fortunate that even the one Lib Dem member Andrew Stunell MP, is knowledgeable in the field of local government.

I listen to what you have said here with interest because my work is around an Efficiency Exchange for Local Government and we are trying to help the sector prepare for and deal with the extent of the fallout from the October Spending Review. We are anticipating savage cuts to budgets the like of which most of us (like the Coalition Government generally) have never experienced.

In the absence of those who 'have been there before’ we have made a bid to learn from those who are experienced and so we have turned to our international colleagues. We are currently working with the Swedes, Finns, Canadians and soon the Japanese, to see how they handled the austere times caused by their own severe budget deficits in the 90’s.

It is clear to me that if we are to get through these next few difficult years relatively unscathed, then we cannot be too proud to emulate what has worked elsewhere and we need to avoid making the same mistakes twice. However, despite this cautious approach there will still be room and indeed a need for innovation and new ideas.