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Rob Wilson MP: How the Civil Service changed history and aided the formation of the Coalition

Picture 4 Rob Wilson is MP for Reading East and author of 5 Days to Power - The Journey to Coalition Britain, which is published today by Biteback.

Having written 5 Days to Power, which gives a detailed account of how Britain arrived at a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, I am in little doubt that the civil service changed the course of British political history by creating the space and time for the negotiation of a Coalition government.  In my view it is extremely likely that without the intervention of the civil service the United Kingdom would currently be governed by a Conservative minority government. 

As someone who is a supporter of the outcome, I raise this as a constitutional question because the role, place and influence of the civil service needs to be properly assessed for the sake of future elections.

The civil service had been burning the midnight oil for months preparing, often secretly, for the prospect of a new administration and how it could best control events to ensure a smooth transition of power. The most significant aspect of the civil service’s pre-election work was the preparation and publication of a draft chapter of the proposed Cabinet Manual – a single document bringing together the existing unwritten, piecemeal conventions regulating the operation of central government.

The drive to publish the chapter entitled ‘Elections and Government Formation’, dealing specifically with post-election arrangements and the conventions governing ‘hung’ parliaments, was according to one senior civil servant, “very much [Cabinet Secretary] Gus O’Donnell’s”. O’Donnell’s view was that a written set of rules that all sides accepted was important so that, first, the Palace could be kept out of politics and, second, that all sides understood the rules and could therefore avoid disputes.

The draft chapter set in writing, backed up by the authority of the impartial Cabinet Secretary and briefed extensively by constitutional experts to sections of the media, the convention that if a general election did not result in a clear majority for a single party, the incumbent Prime Minister is entitled to remain in office until ‘the meeting of the new Parliament to see if [the Government] can command the confidence of the House of Commons’ or to resign if it becomes clear that the incumbent Government is ‘unlikely to command that confidence.’

This would have appeared uncontroversial in principle and when Sir Gus went to Gordon Brown and asked him to tacitly sign it off, I’m sure the then Prime Minister felt it eminently sensible.  Brown, a deeply tribal politician who probably knew that an outright Labour victory was unlikely, may even have immediately seen the political advantage of such rules to a sitting Prime Minister. However, as one of the Conservative negotiators of the agreement would later recall:

‘I don’t think anyone had anticipated actually, certainly we hadn’t, this sort of feature of the rules, that Gus O’Donnell had pronounced on, that the Prime Minister doesn’t [resign in the event that his party ‘loses’ the election], the Prime Minister stays there until someone else is able to form the government, which turned out to be an important part of the chess game that ensued.’

The Conservative Party’s over-riding objective in the hours after the general election result had become clear: before any decision had been taken to seek a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, it was, according to George Osborne, the party’s leading political strategist, to “get them (Labour) out of Downing Street” as quickly as possible. As soon as the Conservatives could get themselves inside Number 10 with Cameron as Prime Minister, ‘all the rules changed’. In the event, the Conservatives’ desire was frustrated by the rules which the Cabinet Secretary had published and pronounced on, giving Brown the political cover he needed to remain in Downing Street and seek to patch together a ‘rainbow coalition’ in order to prolong his premiership and keep the Conservatives out.

We now know that almost immediately after Gordon Brown resigned, his political authority to drive through a ‘Lib-Lab’ deal rapidly evaporated. Senior Liberal Democrats such as David Laws have accused the Labour negotiators Ed Balls and Ed Miliband of positioning themselves for the leadership during the negotiations between the two parties. Heavyweights of the Blair era broke ranks to attack the prospect of a ‘coalition of the defeated’. Had Brown gone, and Labour been taken out of the game as early as the Friday or Saturday after polling day as the Conservatives originally intended, David Cameron would doubtless have sought to put together a deal with the Liberal Democrats in order to allow the government to function – for example to pass a Queen’s Speech and Emergency Budget.

But this scenario raises an interesting ‘What if?’ question of history. Would Cameron have made his ‘big, open offer’ of a coalition to the Liberal Democrats if Brown was in the process of being forced out by media and public pressure and Downing Street was at his mercy? Would Cameron have been able to persuade the Conservative party to pay the price of securing a coalition deal – the offer of a referendum on electoral reform – if he was already in Downing Street as Prime Minister? Would the Liberal Democrat rank and file have agreed to a coalition with their bitter adversaries if the need to fill the political vacuum was less pressing?

The codification of the existing conventions, with the Cabinet Secretary as ‘guardian’ or ‘referee’ of those conventions in a hung parliament, raises interesting questions. Did Gordon Brown, whose personal unpopularity had been a major factor in Labour’s worst post-war election performance with the exception of 1983, have the same ‘entitlement’ to remain in office and seek the confidence of the House of Commons as Edward Heath, who was only four seats behind Labour in February 1974 and who had won the popular vote? Will the codification of unwritten, constitutional conventions lead to a loss of flexibility and transfer the spotlight from the responsibility of politicians to the interpretations of bureaucrats? 

As lessons are learned ahead of potential future hung parliaments, the five day struggle for power in May shows just how influential the ‘rules of the game’ (and the civil servants who administer those rules) can be in shaping the political outcomes in hung parliaments where governments of different party combinations are possible. The civil service changed the direction of the British government in May 2010, so in a period where minority and coalition government appears more likely, politicians should take stock and assess if the current arrangements are the best way of handling the birth of a new government.


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