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.