3 Practical aspects of government formation |
36. This chapter addresses two practical lessons
that might be learned from the events of May 2010.
37. Academic experts agree that "the five-day
government formation period in May 2010 was ... remarkably short
compared to many other western democracies".
Those involved in negotiations following the general election
told us, however, that five days, on this occasion, was sufficient
to conclude an initial coalition agreement without significantly
affecting its quality.
A long history of immediate transitions between administrations
created expectations of a swift process, and there were fears
that financial markets would suffer if there was a long period
of uncertainty about the identity and form of the next government.
38. Several witnesses told us that the experience
of May 2010 means that in future, the period of government formation
could take a little longer if necessary without a sense of crisis
emerging in the media or the financial markets.
We hope that this would be the case where a future general election
results in a hung Parliament. Lord Adonis, a member of the team
appointed by Gordon Brown to negotiate with the Liberal Democrats,
envisaged a situation whereby politicians from the three main
parties agreed not to begin negotiations until the Monday following
a general election on a Thursday. He told us that
If the three major party leaders had agreed, if they
had come out on the Friday and said collectively, 'Hey, look,
we're all absolutely shattered and exhausted, none of us have
slept for a week, we do need to recover and consult with our colleagues
before we start these negotiations, and we're not going to start
them until Monday', it might have been possible to have proceeded
in that way. 
This seems to us to be a sensible approach.
The role of the civil service
and the Cabinet Secretary
39. Following the result of the election, the Cabinet
Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, offered civil service support on
the same basis to all political parties for negotiations to form
a government. This is a new development.
In the event, however, the civil service provided only very limited
support for the negotiations that took place. David Laws explained
Gus also did offer to support the negotiations....
But, here, our parties decided that we would do the talks direct,
that we did not need the civil servants in the room and, therefore,
they left and the talks only took place with the negotiating teams
and some note takers.
Oliver Letwin suggested to us that being able to
"meet the man" (the Cabinet Secretary) to receive "advice
about the constitutional proprieties" was "extremely
helpful", and that as a result he had not needed to refer
to the draft Cabinet Manual chapter on elections and government
40. The Cabinet Office has published the internal
guidance issued by the Cabinet Secretariat on 6 May 2010 on civil
service support to coalition negotiations. The December 2010 Cabinet
Manual contains similar guidance.
We welcome the publication of this guidance and the spirit of
the guidance, that the civil service should remain impartial and
be limited to providing factual information, logistical support
and constitutional advice.
41. In light of the fact that coalition negotiations
took place successfully between political parties in May 2010
without significant input from civil servants, the Government
may wish to consider whether such extensive support should be
offered in future. The greater the involvement of the civil service
in coalition negotiations, the harder it is likely to be to maintain
the appearance of impartiality. For example, following the Cabinet
Secretary's comment to the BBC that he had told politicians after
the 2010 general election that "pace was important, but also
the more comprehensive the agreement the better",
the Chair of the Select Committee on Public Administration suggested
to him that he had "put public pressure on political parties
to form a long term coalition".
42. It is important that the civil service should
not only act impartially, but appear to act impartially, and therefore
any public statements that could be interpreted as suggesting
that the civil service has had a political impact should be avoided.
43. We welcome
the inclusion in the December 2010 Cabinet Manual of guidance
on civil service support to government formation negotiations.
We recommend that final guidance
should take pains to protect civil servants from accusations of
political interference, taking account of the fact that much of
the support on offer in 2010 was not taken up.
42 Ev 66 [Institute for Government]. Back
Q 84; Q 74; Q 15 Back
Q 120 [Professor Hazell] Back
For example Q 127 [Professor Hazell], Q 130 [Dr Fox] Back
Q 75 Back
Ev 65 [Institute for Government]; Ev 68 [Constitution Unit]. Back
Q 20 Back
Q 118 Back
Cabinet Office, The Cabinet Manual - Draft, December 2010 Back
Annex A Back
Five days that changed Britain, BBC Back
Oral Evidence taken before the Public Administration Committee
on Thursday 28 October 2010 Back