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

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".[42] 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.[43] 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.[44]

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.[45] 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. [46]

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.[47] In the event, however, the civil service provided only very limited support for the negotiations that took place. David Laws explained that

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.[48]

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 formation. [49]

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.[50] 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.[51]

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",[52] 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".[53]

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

43   Q 84; Q 74; Q 15 Back

44   Q 120 [Professor Hazell] Back

45   For example Q 127 [Professor Hazell], Q 130 [Dr Fox] Back

46   Q 75  Back

47   Ev 65 [Institute for Government]; Ev 68 [Constitution Unit]. Back

48   Q 20 Back

49   Q 118 Back

50   Cabinet Office, The Cabinet Manual - Draft, December 2010 Back

51   http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/421449/coalition-negotiations.pdf Annex A Back

52   Five days that changed Britain, BBC Back

53   Oral Evidence taken before the Public Administration Committee on Thursday 28 October 2010 Back

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