Lessons from the process of government formation after the 2010 general election: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2010-11 - Procedure Committee Contents


Covering letter from Sir Gus O'Donnell KCB, Cabinet Secretary

I would like to thank the Committee for their thoughtful and helpful report into the lessons from the process of Government formation after the 2010 General Election.

I am pleased that the Committee concludes that the process of government formation and transition generally went well. The Civil Service had made significant preparations to ensure that it was able to fulfil its obligations in accordance with the standards set out in the Civil Service Code, in particular: to continue effectively serving the government of the day; to support political parties in their negotiations to determine the shape of the new government and achieve a smooth transition; and to support the new government immediately from day one.

I am grateful for the Committee's comments on the process. Please find attached a copy of the Government's response.

I look forward to giving evidence to your Committee on 10 March.

9 March 2011


1. The Government is grateful for the Political Reform and Constitution Committee's Report on 'Lessons from the process of Government formation after the 2010 General Election'.

2. The Committee has made four recommendations in relation to the text in the Cabinet

Manual. We note that the Committee will also publish a report on the constitutional implications of the Cabinet Manual. We will respond to the Committee's points in detail

once we have received comments on the Cabinet Manual, and it is finalised. We will also

respond to the recommendations in relation to the role and powers of the Prime Minister following the Committee's inquiry into it.

3. This Government response addresses each of the Committee's conclusions and recommendations.

Response to conclusions and recommendations


4. Recommendation One: 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)

5. We look forward to receiving the Committee's further report on the Cabinet Manual.

The First Opportunity to Form a Government.

6. Recommendation Two: 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)

7. We welcome the Committee's views that the draft Cabinet Manual chapter was "a crucial explanatory document" (p8) and that it provided greater clarity.

8. The Liberal Democrat Leader's comments (footnote 8 of the Cabinet Manual) set out the negotiating position of the Liberal Democrats, which was relevant in the specific circumstances of 2010 election. It was included for information and is not a constitutional obligation or binding on political parties in the future. The Government will consider whether the Manual should be amended once all responses have been received on the draft.


9. Recommendation Three: 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)

10. We note the Committee's views. Gordon Brown resigned at a constitutionally appropriate time, putting the public interest above his own personal interest and setting a helpful precedent should such circumstances ever arise in future.

11. Recommendation Four: 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)

12. The Government notes the Committee's conclusion and is aware that it and other committees are currently considering the Cabinet Manual in more detail. The manual will be finalised once all comments have been received on the draft.


13. Recommendation Five: 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)

14. We note that the Committee will consider this issue further as part of their inquiry into the Role and Powers of the Prime Minister. We will respond once we have considered the Committee's conclusions.


15. Recommendation Six: 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)

16. Civil Service support to the negotiations involved the provision of factual information, logistical support and advice on constitutional processes. It was consistent with the Civil Service values set out in the Civil Service Code. We anticipate that future offers of Civil Service support would continue to be made with the Prime Minister's authorisation only and it would be for individual parties to determine whether to take up that offer. Any such offers of support in future will continue to be made on the basis of the requirements of the Civil Service Code.


17. Recommendation Seven: 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)

18. The Government is fully committed to consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny, where appropriate. It improves the quality of legislation and provides for public engagement. A number of bills will be published in draft over the session although there will be exceptions where Government priorities need to be presented at an early opportunity. A 'public reading' stage is being piloted on the Protection of Freedoms Bill with the aim of making the legislative process more transparent and open to the public.

19. Recommendation Eight: 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)

20. The Government continues to agree with the analysis of the Joint Committee on Conventions in 2006—namely, that the Salisbury-Addison convention is just one manifestation of the convention that the House of Lords respects the primacy of the elected House. That Committee's Report was accepted by both Houses. As the Joint Committee acknowledged, it is very rare for the House of Lords to oppose any Government Bill at second reading, manifesto or otherwise, as it is a negation of its accepted role in the process as primarily a revising chamber.


21. Recommendation Nine: 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)

22. We agree. This is not a matter for Government.


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

24. We welcome the Committee's comments.

25. Recommendation Eleven: 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)

26. We note the Committee's views on restrictions that should apply on Government activity and will consider them alongside other comments we have received on the draft Cabinet Manual.


27. Recommendation Twelve: 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)

28. We welcome the Committee comments on the revised wording in the Cabinet Manual. We agree with the principle that the Opposition should be consulted but note that the Government retains responsibility for taking decisions.

29. Recommendation Thirteen: 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)

30. We agree with the Committee and will publish updated civil service guidance on facilitating consultation between political parties in advance of the next General Election.

31. We note the Committee's recommendation that the Accounting Officer copies relevant papers to the Comptroller and Auditor General in the expectation that they will be published promptly. We are in the process of consulting the Comptroller on this.


32. Recommendation Fourteen: 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)

33. We note the Committee's recommendation.

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