I wonder if Gordon Brown looks back on his time as Prime Minister with much satisfaction. Probably not, but the following possibility may comfort him: which is that he could go down in history as the last British PM with a single party majority.
We are, at least, entering an era in which coalition government is a likelihood, if not a certainty. One should therefore ask if our uncodified constitution is up to the strain.
In a briefing for the Guardian, Patrick Wintour suggests that it might not be:
“In a paper for Political Quarterly called Squatters in Downing Street, two academics – Petra Schleiter, an associate professor of politics at St Hildas, Oxford, and Valerie Belu – also warn that important aspects of the constitutional arrangements surrounding a coalition government have been changed by a fixed term parliament, and not been fully addressed in the cabinet manual revised by the civil service in 2011 in the wake of the 2010 coalition talks.”
The rapid formation of the 2010 coalition has lulled us into a false sense of security. In the days following the last election, the path towards agreement was smoothed by a combination of special factors:
Firstly, the election had a clear winner in terms of both seats and votes – leaving David Cameron as the only viable candidate for Prime Minister. Secondly, there was only one plausible combination of parties capable of commanding a working majority. Thirdly, the Coalition was composed of just two parties – and therefore only required one set of bilateral negotiations. Fourthly, the Coalition had a majority of English seats, so the West Lothian question did not present itself. Finally, the novelty of the whole experience allowed the Conservative and Lib Dem leaderships to seize the initiative and present the deal as a fait accompli.
It is quite possible that not one of these factors will apply this year or in future years. Therefore future coalitions may take much longer to come together. So, while the negotiations take place, who’s running the country?
“The researchers found there would be particular problems regarding the operation of a caretaker government, which is led by the incumbent prime minister following an inconclusive election result. The manual… does not set out the justification for limitations on government power during caretaker periods… the manual blurs the distinction between a period of purdah immediately before an election when a government should not make announcements that might garner votes, and the period of a caretaker government when votes have been cast, and no such advantage applies.”
This raises questions of democratic legitimacy – and that’s not all:
“The manual… does ‘not stipulate unequivocally that a caretaker government cannot resign until its successor has been formed and therefore does not guarantee the continuing existence of a government at all times’.”
Clearly, something needs to be sorted out. Perhaps we should copy the Americans and elect the legislature and executive in advance. For instance, Presidents are elected early in November, but they don’t take office (or start their second terms if re-elected) until the 20th or 21st January. The equivalent applies to Congress – with the old Congress reconvening for a so-called lame-duck session after the election.
A similar arrangement in this country would allow time for coalitions to come together in an orderly fashion, while ensuring the continuity of basic government functions. There would need to be appropriate limits on what lame-duck ministers and the lame-duck Parliament could do and vote for; but the transitional period would give the incoming government and legislature an opportunity to start-off on the right foot. For instance, newly elected MPs could arrive in Westminster with office space already allocated and staff in place, instead of the current farce in which they spend many days if not weeks as Parliamentary nomads.
More importantly, we would have a breathing space in which coalition agreements could be carefully negotiated and party members given a chance to grant – or withhold – their approval.