Robert Hazell and Ben Yong’s work, The Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government Works, is a very readable volume, written mostly in the style of an introductory politics textbook and based on extensive interviews with the participants, including at very senior levels.
The book is well done, readable, comprehensive and has a few gems lurking in the revelations from all the interviews, such as the limited involvement of Andrew Lansley and Paul Burstow in drafting the health section of the Coalition Agreement.
Perhaps the one thing it lacks is surprise, due to the regularity with which both the Constitution Unit (where both authors are based) and other bodies, such as the Institute for Government, have looked at the workings of coalition government since 2010. If you are familiar with those previous articles and pamphlets, then little in this book will surprise. Its real strength is in being an effective summary of the knowledge so far, capturing many of the administrative lessons for future coalitions, such as the need to properly resource the smaller partner(s) so that they can cope with the workload involved in trying to have a view across all government policies.
The style of the book is rather different from many political science studies, for as the authors say in the Preface:
In academic literature generally, there are few studies of how coalition government works in practice. That is in part because of difficulties of access … and in part because of the academic predilection for theoretical modelling, for studying the formation and termination of coalitions, but not their actual operation… An additional problem [is] … the preponderance in political science of quantitative over qualitative work.
Instead, this book is light on theory and numbers and heavy on the fruits of over 140 interviews with those experiencing how coalition works.
A constant theme is the tension between stability – showing that the coalition can work by governing successfully – and distinctiveness between the coalition partners – necessary for political success yet also a potential danger to the coalition’s stability.
Another is the way the practical details of being in government can trip up a coalition’s junior partner. Most obviously, the lost of Short Money and the decision to cut the number of Special Advisors left the Liberal Democrats short of capacity to cope with the workload of government. More subtly, having a Liberal Democrat in charge of a policy area with which the party is closely associated is not necessarily a benefit. The logic of doing this is obvious, but it also means that if coalition compromise means the party cannot fully deliver its manifesto polices in that area then it is also very directly associated with the misses as well as the hits.
Vince Cable’s role at the head of the department which introduced the highly controversial tuition fee changes in part illustrates this. Having Cable as the Secretary of State in charge of the process meant the party secured many changes of detail to the plans; it also meant the plans were very much seen as Liberal Democrat plans rather than as Conservative plans the Liberal Democrats were reluctantly having to accede to thanks to coalition in a way that has worked for the party in some other areas.
For the civil service, however, the book paints a generally happy picture with coalition resulting in less sofa government, more structured decision-making, clearer policy plans and a stronger role for the Cabinet.
All in all, well worth a read for the lessons for the future, especially as not all the lessons are ones for a post-2015 world.