Giovanni Spinella: Lessons from Europe on how to run a coalition government
A coalition of political parties governing our nation isn’t something the British public is familiar with. Our politicians will find it just as daunting and confusing. However, those of us who have lived part of their lives on the Continent and have seen how coalitions evolve and degenerate, can maybe (and hubristically) give some tips to Cameron and his team as to how to proceed and, crucially, what to look out for whilst in office.
1. If it is to be coalition, then it must be a formal coalition. This condition has been met and this is a good start. The external support option was only illusory in its feasibility. Many political leaders would love to be able to milk a government for all the concessions they can get whilst keeping their hands “clean” from any of the difficult choices said government has to make. It is agreed that this government will have to tackle the deficit with a series of unpopular cuts. Clegg and Cable could not be allowed to claim it was done without their knowledge or consent. Their hands must too be stained with responsibility and that can only happen if they had their seats in the Cabinet.
2. Don’t let the other guy push the envelope too much. In a coalition, one of the partners periodically feels the need to push the other. This is more often than not dictated by intra-party dynamics. If a number of Lib Dems feel they are being somehow pulled too far to the right on any issue and threaten revolt, then Clegg might want to make more pressing and more strident demands. Expect Trident to remain on the table as a topic of discussion - if not action - as this will allow him to show his followers he is still a Lib Dem through and through. Conversely, Cameron might find himself under similar internal pressure, especially from the right.
3. Watch out for the reshuffle. Related to the above point, the speedy and even brutal ministerial reshuffle we have been periodically accustomed to is most likely going to be a thing of the past. With two parties in government, sacking ministers becomes a much more delicate proposition. Cameron will not be able to simply move people he thinks more or less suitable to different portfolios. From now on he will have to consult, at least for some of those ministers, with Clegg. Thus in addition to measuring individual capabilities, the internal political balance of each party will have to be considered. And as the Lib Dems are even more internally diversified than the Tories, this could cough up some curious results in terms of who gets a shot at a ministerial seat. If anything, the small size of the Lib Dems’ parliamentary group means that pretty much each and every Lib Dem MP can legitimately expect to serve in a ministerial capacity over the course of the next five years so the frenzy of ambition will be much more intense, and the attention-seeking stunts louder.
4. The Whips have become much more important. Conservatives and Labour in their last sixty years of alternating in government have had to deal with backbench rebellions. Blair’s time in government saw the highest number of such rebellions in UK parliamentary history - which is saying a lot if you remember the hard time John Major had in his final years! Now, however, the job has become much more complex because it’s not one team of Whips dealing with one party, but two teams dealing with two parties. They are going to be feeding back to their leaderships different and even conflicting messages and demands and will need to be able to satisfy their MPs with something. Some political systems, such as Italy, actually created a separated ministerial position, a Minister for Parliamentary Relations whose function could almost be described as a Whip of Whips, ensuring a two-way communication between the government and its MPs and trying to keep all sides relatively happy.
5. Government benches are going to feel more distant to many MPs. The almost immediate relationship between the majority party MP and the government - one of the cornerstones of British politics - will give way to a much more mediated relationship. What one Conservative MP, or group of MPs, says and suggests will have to be balanced against what a Lib Dem MP (or group of MPs) says. The wheels of government actions already turn exceedingly slowly. Expect government to be just that much slower in responding. MPs will start to see the government less as “theirs” and more like an almost separate entity. This could lead to overt disloyalty and even rebellions.
6. Beware of pork. In a coalition, the member parties try to use their positions to feed government funds to their electorate. This is more noticeable in systems that use full-on PR, as this system favours the creation of sectional parties that stop talking to the country as a whole and focus exclusively on their own electorate, although the UK’s FPTP system has coughed up similar parties such as the regionalist SNP or the single-issue parties UKIP and the Greens. But in any coalition, partners will be tempted to feed their backers - especially in the case of parties that never have been in government before. Cameron and his team will have to make sure the Lib Dems don’t send public funds into the pockets of their own special interest groups.
7. Remember what you’re there for. All coalitions are a matter of compromise. Politics is often described on the Continent as the art of mediation. However, compromise cannot become the reason you’re in office. Our politicians have been elected to office for a reason and yes, a lot of manifesto commitments will have to be dropped - something European voters are quite used to. But there will come a moment where a line will be reached and should not be crossed.
8. Don’t be afraid to walk away from the table. This will always be Cameron’s trump card, the ability to dissolve Parliament - for it would be unlikely that an alternative coalition could be hammered together, at least nothing with any kind of durability. If government proves to be so mediated and so difficult that it hardly seems recognisable as a Conservative government, then it would only be appropriate to go back to the country. Thousands of Conservative activists across the land are dying for a rematch so DC should know that if push comes to shove the party is more than willing to finish the job that was started on May 6th (although all of this depends on what rules are in place with regard to dissolving parliament).