Lessons from last time (2)

Lessons from last time (2)

 

Watch George Pascoe-Watson and James O’Shaughnessy discuss lessons learned from 2010 and predictions for 2015.

 

 

As the General Election approaches, what might the next Government look like? After dabbling in coalition, is Britain heading for another one? And if so, who will be doing the negotiating?

David Cameron didn’t go into the 2010 general election looking for a coalition, though he certainly prepared for that possibility. Despite a deeply unpopular Prime Minister, the task facing the Conservatives was very hard. As it was, the Tories added over a hundred seats – their biggest gains for 80 years – but couldn’t form a majority. By planning for this eventuality, Cameron was able to realise his deep ambition to enter No 10 as Prime Minister.

The run-up to the election had been dominated by leaders’ debates, skewing the campaign. No one theme or policy issue came to the fore or dictated the agenda. Political campaigners rued the lack of rough and tumble and the tendency of seemingly minor events to dominate the news cycle, but the effect was a relatively stable period (Clegg-mania notwithstanding) that produced a result much as was predicted before the campaign proper began.

It is in exactly circumstances like this that David Cameron, sometimes nicknamed the ‘essay crisis PM’, thrives. Having joined the election team in CCHQ at around 7am, he took counsel from George Osborne, Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson and then retired for a quick sleep. Later that day he would make the “big, open, comprehensive offer” to the Lib Dems that changed the post-election dynamic and gave the Tories a real shot at power.

The experience of coalition negotiations have been extensively written about and are reviewed by Hugo Sutherland elsewhere. My first contribution to the negotiations was when I was I had to pass on an policy paper I had drafted in a swift, hushed meeting with a civil service official outside the Treasury. In a John Le Carré-style document swap, I passed over the paper that had been stuffed in my jacket’s breast pocket, avoiding the press gang piled up outside the Cabinet Office.

Later on, I would join the main negotiating teams in order to thrash out some of the specific policy details, focusing on domestic issues while my colleagues Rupert Harrison and Denzil Davidson focused on economic and European issues respectively. My primary reaction to the negotiations was how friendly they were – even the most calculating members of each team, George Osborne and Chris Huhne, were getting along famously.

There were two reasons for this spirit of positivity. First, both parties had been out of power a long time – a very long time in the Lib Dems’ case – and were desperate to make something work. The other reason is that both were well-prepared, knowledgeable about each other’s positions, and willing to compromise. From the Tories’ side this was because of the assiduous and highly secretive work done by Oliver Letwin during the campaign. Squirrelled away in total isolation in a backroom of CCHQ, he had done the policy comparison work on his own, drawing up red lines and potential negotiating points. He essentially merged the two parties’ manifestos, thinking about areas of common cause or difference and working out the maths needed to create a working coalition. This set the tone for the first years of the Coalition, which will be viewed by history as a period of extensive and radical reform.

Things are likely to be different if coalition negotiations are needed in the event of a hung parliament again in May. With five years of coalition experience under their belts, negotiations between the Conservatives and Lib Dems will be more hard-nosed. The atmosphere will be much less optimistic. Agreeing a fresh deal is likely to take longer as the parties grapple with the electoral maths and wrangle over government posts. Dealing with the deficit would remain the priority and this would dominate everything.

And this will have to be the case from the Labour side, too. Where in 2010 the pressure was on Cameron, if Ed Miliband’s woes continue and Labour look like failing to win enough seats to win a majority, they will have to think more seriously about coalition. Will they negotiate with the Lib Dems? It seems certain that Nick Clegg’s head will be the price of any agreement between the two. Will they look to a broad-based coalition bringing in a number of the smaller parties? Will they consider a confidence and supply agreement with the SNP, who have already indicated they could be open to a deal with Labour on these lines?

With the election result so uncertain, each side will be very thoroughly prepared for a variety of potential outcomes. Researchers and policy advisers in three main parties have been ‘coalition-testing’ all policies and future commitments as part of election planning for months. Every decision made will take the possibility of continued or a new coalition into account and the emphasis will be squarely on how another deal would work in practice.

Like it or not, the leaders of our political parties are having to accept the new reality of a more pluralistic approach from the electorate and an increasingly important role played by the smaller parties such as UKIP. The challenge this time would be the need for greater democratic discussions within their own parties than in 2010 for both the Conservatives and Labour. It remains doubtful whether the Parliamentary Conservative Party would back another coalition. Labour may be more willing, but only marginally.

For the Lib Dems, despite their woeful polling and Nick Clegg’s negative approval ratings, they will be focused on being the kingmakers again. Even if they wake up on 8 May having lost twenty seats, the arithmetic could mean that they still play a vital role. Led by Danny Alexander, the Treasury chief secretary, their policy experts will be preparing for all possibilities.

The roles needed in a negotiating team

As negotiations last time demonstrated, there are certain functions that need to be fulfilled in a coalition negotiating team. We can expect that each team will again be made up of at least four people who all bring something slightly different to the team, some of whom might perform more than one function. What is certain is that the following four functions have to be accounted for:

  1. The money person
    Someone with a thorough understanding of the finances, how the Treasury works and the financial impacts of policy decisions.
  2. A representative of the leader’s office
    A trusted lieutenant to communicate each party leader’s views, highly likely to be the Chief of Staff.
  3. A representative of the party
    Someone with excellent relationships within the party, respected and able to communicate with different wings of the party equally well.
  4. The policy brain
    Someone who knows all the policies inside out and has prepared for all possibilities on crucial negotiating points.

What will the line ups be?

Conservatives

While far from certain, our best guess is that the Conservatives negotiating team would be:

The money person
George Osborne for definite, the only choice and a key part of the negotiating team in 2010. A firm friend of the Prime Minister and the party’s key strategist. As Chancellor, the man who understands the Treasury and what can and can’t be done better than anyone.

A representative of the leader’s office
Could be the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Edward Llewellyn, as in 2010. While Llewellyn is expected to step down from the role after May, he could stay on to oversee negotiations.

A representative of the party
Michael Gove. With William Hague stepping down as an MP, this role is likely to be filled by Gove. As Chief Whip – popular with MPs, peers and party members alike – and a Cameron confidante, he is ideally placed to take on the role.

The policy brain
Oliver Letwin will certainly be involved in some way. The party’s main ‘policy brain’ and importantly, ‘Lib Dem-friendly.’ Another person who could be involved here is Jo Johnson, head of the Downing Street Policy Unit and the man charged with coming up with ideas for the party’s election manifesto.

Labour

The Labour team is more difficult to predict. Like the Conservatives in 2010, Labour will be going all out to win the election and gain a majority. Entertaining coalition will be a last resort to secure power. There’s a personal dynamic too. The party is under periodically troubled leadership and Ed Miliband will not want people involved who could be future rivals for his position. As things look at the moment, the team we could expect to see would be:

The money person
It’s hard to look beyond Ed Balls. Central to Labour policy making, with a lengthy Treasury background and now a term as Shadow Chancellor under his belt.

A representative of the leader’s office
Lucy Powell has taken on a pivotal role for Ed Miliband and Labour’s 2015 campaign. Trusted by Miliband, and his first Chief of Staff, as an MP she is again a key figure in his team.

A representative of the party
Much like with Balls, it’s hard to look beyond Harriet Harman. A Labour big-hitter and Deputy Leader of the party, we can expect her to demand to be part of any negotiations.

The policy brain
Lord Stewart Wood could take on this role – Miliband’s closest aide and ally, and crucially, his ‘ideas’ man. He has been heavily involved in coordinating Labour’s election manifesto. Another candidate for this role might be Torsten Bell, a Labour strategist in ‘team Miliband’ who has long been focused on policy development. And we shouldn’t discount Andrew Adonis who played an influential role last time and could be called upon to do so again.

Liberal Democrats

The easiest team to predict in many ways, given that their chance of remaining in government rests on negotiating a new coalition. Nick Clegg went public early this year with the team of five he has picked to prepare for negotiations. With no Chris Huhne – a key member of the 2010 negotiating team – and Andrew Stunnell unlikely to play such a prominent role again, we can expect a negotiating team to reflect the names in Nick Clegg’s announcement:

The money person
Danny Alexander as Treasury chief secretary, a trusted ally of Clegg, a veteran of the 2010 negotiations and a man who has worked well with the Conservatives before.

A representative of the leader’s office
Johnny Oates could play an important role here as chief of staff to Nick Clegg and one of the most influential party voices. Another option could be Lynne Featherstone who is
a trusted Clegg ally and a part of the team picked to prepare for negotiations.

A representative of the party
Highly likely to be Steve Webb. Particularly popular with the left wing of the party, he would bring balance to the team and has performed an important role already in this parliament, serving throughout as Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions.

The policy brain
This will certainly be David Laws. Central to negotiations, and planning for negotiations last time, he will again perform this function. Ideologically to the right of his party, he is particularly popular with the Conservatives.

Conclusion

What’s sure is that this will be a fascinating and unpredictable election. The closer we get, the less likely it looks that the Conservatives or Labour will get the majority they are after.

With UKIP and the SNP looking set to take seats from both the Conservatives and Labour, we could be headed towards hung parliament territory again. The number crunchers will be busier than ever as the votes come in, with a number of different scenarios possible.

If we do get another hung parliament, we can expect longer, more protracted negotiations than in 2010. But our media won’t stand for negotiations over a number of weeks as is often the case in other European countries. Discussions will be transactional rather than trust-based, personalities will be crucial, and securing key government posts will be paramount.