Lessons from the process of Government formation after the 2010 General Election - Political and Consitutional Reform Committee Contents

1 Introduction


1. We launched this inquiry in order to identify the lessons from the process of government formation and transition that followed the general election in May 2010. Following the general election, no single party was able to command a majority in the House of Commons. Though they were relatively common during the period before the Second World War and could feasibly become a more frequent occurrence, hung Parliaments have been rare in post-Second World War UK history. The last time this result occurred in a UK general election was in 1974, and the last peacetime coalition Government was formed in 1931 (although, like hung Parliaments, coalition governments were not unusual in the period before the Second World War).[1][2] Therefore, the events of May 2010 are "of considerable political and historical significance", and "will serve to mould ideas and expectations about the future".[3]

2. During the inquiry, we heard from representatives from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties who took part in negotiations following the general election, from the Cabinet Secretary, and from a panel of academic experts. We also received written evidence from a wider range of experts and from Members of the House of Lords. This Report seeks to cover not only the specific lessons that can be learned from the 2010 election and its aftermath, but also a number of broader constitutional issues have arisen in the course of our inquiry.


3. The number of seats won by each party in the general election of 6 May 2010 was as follows.[4]

4. This meant that no single party had a majority in the House of Commons. In the days after the election, representatives of the Liberal Democrat party leadership held talks with representatives of the leadership of both the Conservative and Labour parties with a view to reaching an agreement that would result in a government being formed. Four days after the general election, on 10 May, the incumbent Prime Minister, Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP, tendered his resignation to the Queen, who invited Rt Hon David Cameron MP to form a government. The next day, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties reached an agreement to form a coalition government.

5. As the general election approached, on 2 February 2010, Gordon Brown asked the Cabinet Secretary to begin drafting a Cabinet Manual.[5] On this day the then-Prime Minister announced the Cabinet Manual initiative at a public event (not to Parliament) at which he depicted it as part of a broader reform programme that could eventually lead to a 'written' constitution for the UK.[6] The Cabinet Secretary told the Justice Committee later that month that the Cabinet Manual would be an "account of the workings of Cabinet Government" and would "consolidate the existing unwritten, piecemeal conventions that govern much of the way central government operates under our existing constitution".[7] Later in the same month, in anticipation of the possibility that the 2010 general election could result in a hung Parliament, the Cabinet Office published a draft chapter from the Cabinet Manual on Elections and Government Formation (referred to in this Report as the 'draft Cabinet Manual chapter'). This draft chapter sought to summarise the existing constitutional conventions which applied in the event of a hung Parliament.[8] On 14 December 2010 the Cabinet Office published the full Cabinet Manual in draft for consultation (referred to in this Report as the 'December 2010 Cabinet Manual'). The chapter on Elections and Government Formation has changed substantially from the draft published in February. We recently launched a separate inquiry into the constitutional status of the Cabinet Manual. Our comments on the Cabinet Manual in this Report relate only to the issue of government formation. We will return in due course to wider issues raised by the Cabinet Manual.

1   Ev w2 [Professor Blackburn] Back

2   Robert Hazell and Akash Paun, Making Minority Government Work, (Institute for Government, 2009) p12  Back

3   Ev w2 [Professor Blackburn] Back

4   The chart below includes the seat won by the Conservative party in Thirsk and Malton on 27 May 2010. The election was delayed in Thirsk and Malton due to the death of a candidate. Back

5   Q 167 Back

6   "Towards a new politics", 10 Downing Street press notice, 2 February 2010 Back

7   Justice Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2009-10, Constitutional Processes Following a General Election, HC 396, Ev 23 Back

8   Q 175 Back

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Prepared 28 January 2011