“The hung Parliament contingency still relies upon call “the good chap theory of government” – that good chaps of both sexes know where the unwritten lines are drawn and do not push matters to the point where they cross them.” – Peter Hennessy
“I think it contradicted what a lot of people thought would be coalition, which would be, ‘oh, it’s mushy, they’re not going to do very much, you know, they won’t be able to do anything’. We’ve seen with this government that you could criticise them for many things, but actually you couldn’t criticise them for lack of action.” – Gus O’Donnell
In typically British form, there was no reliable guide to what happened after the 2010 election.
Various precedents were wheeled out, and experts opined on what might or might not be expected according to convention or political pressure. But the three things that most influenced the form of negotiations last time were:
- the feeling that the Conservatives had earned the right to be in government, even if they had not won outright;
- the perceived necessity to calm international markets at a difficult economic time; and
- the eventual petering out of ‘Cleggmania’ and the sudden adjustment to a smaller Liberal Democrat parliamentary force.
None of these may apply in 2015.
First, in 2010 the Liberal Democrats adopted a doctrine that it would negotiate first with the party which won the most seats. In 2015 that may or may not be the party with the most votes: the ‘side closest to winning’ might be open to interpretation.
Second, the international bond markets are not seen to be so threatening now, and international examples suggest periods of negotiation are not hugely destabilising.
And third, the giddiness of 2010 has given way to a more sober Liberal Democrat party, which is braced for losses and will be planning accordingly.
So once again, the process is pretty much open to be made the way the participants would like it. We can though still predict a few ways in which things will be different this time around.
All three partners have had plenty of time to consider how they would like to play negotiations, and to anticipate their opposite numbers’ strategies.
Importantly, all three will have written their manifestos with an eye to how they will play out in coalition talks. In some cases this will have emerged as a clearly-signalled red line which they will be able to make clear is non-negotiable. In others, the parties might have left things out of the manifesto to give them maximum room to manoeuvre.
With some of the pressure off, the talks could go on for much longer this time. While both the major parties will want to pressure those with whom they are negotiating to seal the deal, the Liberal Democrats will know that they are by far the most realistic chance of either the Conservatives or Labour to form a majority.
So as much as the Tories and Labour might threaten to govern as a minority or put together a grand coalition elsewhere, the Lib Dems will be hoping to set their own pace – and extract as much as they can along the way.
Although the manifestos might be shorter on detail, the form of the final agreement might be lengthier. Assuming the next coalition partners are aiming to deliver another five-year government, the Lib Dems in particular will be conscious of the danger of running out of policy halfway through. While there was a mid-coalition review of sorts in 2013, it did not really result in any new policy, and the negotiating dynamic was by that stage pretty much extinguished.
Of course, no government can predict five-year priorities with total confidence and ministers will have to spend their time dealing with the unexpected. But we can probably expect a fuller agreement with longer-term ambitions.
The power brokers
The role of the civil service in the process is, in true British style, subtle, ill-defined and influenced by the personality of those involved. While trying hard to avoid accusations of political interference, Whitehall will do its best to nudge parties together and facilitate a harmonious discussion.
But whereas Gus O’Donnell was very focussed on process in 2010, down to arranging meeting rooms and discreet routes by which they could be run, his successor Jeremy Heywood is more inclined to ‘fix’. Mr Heywood might be tempted to play a more constructive role, still respecting impartiality but finding ways to bring the parties together to form a workable platform for government. Given what is at stake, this could be the most important role he ever plays.