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

Conclusions and recommendations


1.  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. (Paragraph 5)

The First Opportunity to Form a Government

2.  The December 2010 Cabinet Manual provided greater clarity on the extent to which an incumbent government has a right to stay in office to see whether it can command the confidence of the House of Commons. However, the inclusion of the comments made in May 2010 by the Leader of the Liberal Democrat party may suggest that this view will carry weight in future. (Paragraph 15)

When should a Prime Minister resign?

3.  Gordon Brown resigned at a constitutionally appropriate time. He did not have a constitutional obligation to remain in office for longer, nor to resign sooner. (Paragraph 22)

4.  There needs to be clear and well-understood published guidance about when an incumbent Prime Minister should resign and when he has a duty to remain in office, in particular whether this extends to a duty to remain in office until there is clarity as to the form of an alternative Government, as opposed to simply the name of an alternative Prime Minister. Reaction to the events of May 2010 suggests that more detailed guidance was needed then. Reaction to the revised text in the December 2010 Cabinet Manual suggests that it may not go far enough. (Paragraph 27)

Appointment of the Prime Minister

5.  There are arguments both for and against the idea of an investiture vote after a general election in which the House of Commons would choose a Prime Minister before he or she was appointed by the Monarch. It is an idea that we may wish to consider further in future. (Paragraph 35)

The role of the civil service and the Cabinet Secretary

6.  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. (Paragraph 43)

Status of the coalition agreement

7.  By its nature, the policies of a coalition government have not been endorsed by the people. This makes full pre-legislative scrutiny and proper consultation on those policies all the more important. (Paragraph 53)

8.  Members of the House of Lords may not feel bound to apply the Salisbury-Addison convention to policies contained in a coalition government's programme for government. (Paragraph 54)

Internal Party Processes

9.  It is for the political parties to decide if they wish to review their internal procedures in light of the events of May 2010. (Paragraph 60)

Defining restrictions

10.  We welcome the clarification and further detail of restrictions on government activity set out in the December 2010 Cabinet Manual. (Paragraph 66)

11.  We recommend that the Cabinet Manual should be amended to:

a)  reflect that restrictions on public announcements apply not only in the weeks before an election but also in situations where there is doubt as to who can command the confidence of the House of Commons; and

b)  make clear that the restrictions which apply to government activity where there is doubt as to who can command the confidence of the House of Commons are more stringent than those which apply to government activity before an election. (Paragraph 70)

Restrictions in practice

12.  Where an incumbent Government needs to take a decision on an important matter that cannot be postponed during a period where restrictions on government activity apply, the duty to consult Opposition parties is more than a matter of courtesy. It is a recognition of an uncertain democratic mandate. We welcome the fact that the draft Cabinet Manual now makes this clear. (Paragraph 76)

13.  We recommend that civil service guidance should be drawn up and published on facilitating consultation between political parties during periods in which restrictions on government activity apply. This guidance should set out the processes to be followed where differences of opinion arise between Ministers and civil servants on the application of the restrictions. With regard to the specific issue of a Minister making a written direction to an Accounting Officer in the period before a general election, we recommend that the Government, in consultation with the Comptroller and Auditor General, should consider whether it would be better that the Accounting Officer should copy the relevant papers promptly to the Comptroller, in the expectation that he will publish them as soon as possible, rather than expect the Accounting Officer to arrange for their publication himself. (Paragraph 81)

Pre-election contact between the civil service and opposition politicians

14.  It is for the Prime Minister to determine when contact between civil servants and opposition parties can take place. There is no reason, however, why the authorisation for such contact could not be given in advance, as a matter of course, soon after a general election, rather than at a time when speculation about the future of an incumbent government may inhibit a decision. (Paragraph 85)

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