The Independent View: Coalition Works! The inside story from the Constitution Unit

The coalition is working well, but the Lib Dems could do better, is the overall message from the Constitution Unit’s first report on how the coalition works in Whitehall and Westminster. We are conducting a 12 month study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, with a research team of five, including two former senior civil servants, and one senior broadcaster. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have authorised access to all the key figures in Whitehall, and so far we have interviewed 90 ministers, special advisers, officials, parliamentarians, and external interest groups.

Everyone we interviewed in Whitehall says how much more harmonious the coalition is compared with the rivalries and infighting of the Blair/Brown years. After widespread fears that coalition government would be weak, quarrelsome and divided, in the first year the coalition has proved remarkably stable and united. Cabinet government has been revived; but coalition issues are mainly resolved in informal forums, with weekly meetings between Clegg and Cameron, and regular get togethers between Danny Alexander and Oliver Letwin. The mutual trust and close working relations developed not just between Clegg and Cameron, but amongst all their top advisers, should help the government as it faces tougher times ahead.

And how could the Lib Dems do better? Our report recognises the formidable difficulties they face, in particular because their resources are so stretched. With the loss of Short and Cranborne money, there is no longer state funding to support the party in Parliament. The staff in Cowley Street is severely depleted, with only four press officers where there used to be 13. Lib Dem junior ministers struggle to maintain a watching brief across the whole of their departments, with only a small Private Office. In the absence of any more Special Advisers, they should be given additional policy advisers by the civil service – additional support which has been provided in a couple of departments.

The key challenge for the Lib Dems is to demonstrate greater distinctiveness, without undermining the underlying unity of the government. That will never be easy for the coalition’s junior partner. But they do need to rethink their original strategy of going for breadth rather than depth. The ambition was to influence the whole of government policy. Lib Dem ministers may indeed have achieved hundreds of policy wins, but these are invisible to the public. So instead of spreading themselves thinly across the whole of government, they need to prioritise their effort on areas where they can more clearly have an impact. The lead needs to come from the top, with Nick Clegg himself setting clearer strategic priorities.

Read the full report – Inside Story: How Coalition Government Works.

Professor Robert Hazell is Director of the Constitution Unit at University College London.

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7 Comments

  • Tony Dawson 5th Jun '11 - 12:59pm

    “The coalition is working well, but the Lib Dems could do better,”

    A master of understatement, young Robert. Looking at the details of the latest YouGov poll, prompted me to unearth the clause in the coalition agreement which was written in invisible ink, and without which I and others at Birmingham would never have voted for the Coalition:

    http://today.yougov.co.uk/sites/today.yougov.co.uk/files/yg-archives-pol-st-results-03-050611.pdf

    “We shall drive two thirds of those who supported the Liberal Democrats with their votes at the 2011 election into the arms of others.”

  • Vince Ewell 5th Jun '11 - 2:11pm

    Awesome spin. The report paints a pictures of the tories running rings around the lib dems who are clearly not up to the job.

  • As an unwaged ex-councillor who has just lost what should have been a safe seat, where I have been an active Lib Dem and have put in years of hard work, I have just lost to an opponent who never even mentioned local issues in his campaign. I am very annoyed to read articles telling me how well the coalition is working!

    Now I will have to wait four years to stand again in my local ward.

    I think it’s time some of you contacted earth and found out just what is happening in the real world – after all who will do all of the campaigning for you if we have four more years like this?

  • Philip Young 5th Jun '11 - 2:24pm

    The page-lead in the Telegraph puts it differently:

    1) “key policy decisions are reached through regular Sunday night calls between David Cameron and Nick Clegg.”
    2) Also: “The review found that Mr. Clegg’s Whitehall office powerbase is ineffective and his Liberal Democrat Ministers spread too thinly.”
    3) It found “most decisions are reached through informal channels as opposed to the formal coaltion machinery set up by the Government when it began.”
    4) “Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg often hammer out the key matters by phone on Sunday evenings ahead of face to face meetings the following day”.
    5) “The Study said that the Tories and the Lib Dems were not at loggerheads ideologically and remarked that there were few personal disagreements.
    6) The report comes at a time “when Mr. Clegg’s allies have complained that he lacks the clout in terms of special advisors and top civil servants to deliver as Deputy Prime Minister.
    7) “By going for breath, rather than depth, by placing a Minister in most deparments, the Lib Dems have spread themselves too thinly.”
    8) “In some of the harshest criticism, the report concluded: The Deputy PM has nhot established reconisiable priorities for the Lib Dems. Lib Dem junior ministers struggle to play the cross departmental role envisaged for them; special advisors do little to help; because they do not have the confidence or experience to operate as power brokers.”

    All a bit different to the pink slate above. Come on Mark, why dont you read the Telegraph as well as the Guardian?

  • At the next election, noone will be judging the success of the coalition by the level of cooperation or the number of arguments. They will be judging it by what it does. If Blair and Brown had battled constantly before introducing the minimum wage, it would still have been a good thing. If they had agreed absolutely about the invasion of Iraq, it would still have been a bad thing.

    So far, in terms of what the coalition has done, I have not been impressed.

  • Don Lawrence 6th Jun '11 - 12:54pm

    Well said Tony.

    I never cease to be amazed at the number of people who will trot out such bland platitudes about trivialities only of interest to academics.

    To misquote Clinton “It’s the future of the party, stupid.”

  • Paul Griffiths 10th Jun '11 - 3:58am

    @ Vince Ewell @ Philip Young

    The article wasn’t written by Mark. It was written by one of the co-authors of the report.

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