Coalition forming

I have noticed that the Parliament Channel has variously repeated the seminar held in June on the lessons to be learned from past coalitions in British history.  Three eminent historians spoke about previous coalitions.  I chaired, though as I was originally meant to be a discussant – stepping in to chair at the last moment – I also occasionally added my comments.

One of the points made by the panellists was the importance of personal chemistry.   The leaders of the parties in the coalition usually got on well together.   One difference I noted in respect of the current coalition was that the two leaders also come from very similar backgrounds.  Unlike  leaders in past coalitions, this was not a case of opposites being attracted to one another.  This is just one of several differences with past coalitions.   (To understand coalition formation on this occasion it is as fruitful to look at practice elsewhere as it is to our own history.)  Having two leaders so similar to one another, with apparently very good personal relations, may be a strength, though there are also potential problems.  They need to remain close to their parties as well as to one another.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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7 Responses to Coalition forming

  1. Croft says:

    “One difference I noted in respect of the current coalition was that the two leaders also come from very similar backgrounds.”

    I think that might amount to an understatement! You have to go back to the C19 to find another set of party leaders so almost interchangeable with each other.

    “They need to remain close to their parties as well as to one another.”

    But do they? Part of the calculation for Cam is surely he could use the LDs to ignore his party relying on the fact that after 13yrs they will pretty much stomach anything as long as they are in office. As Major found the poison sets in but only long after those making the calculation and gaining the benefit have gone. Clegg’s party politics is different but the merger of the SDP/Liberals is unfinished, there is still so obviously the ‘labour in all but name’ faction fighting the orange bookers.

  2. Lord Norton says:

    Croft: Many Conservatives are conscious of the fact that the coalition with the Liberal Democrats was not necessary to give the party a majority in the House of Commons, but was desirable in order to deliver an absolute majority. Had Gordon Brown realised immediately he could not form a Government and gone to the Palace, David Cameron would have been summoned and invited to form an administration. A minority Conservative Government, which could not have been defeated solely by the comined votes of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, would have a good chance of governing for some time, possibly a full five sessions. The coalition was not essential to gaining – and maintaining – office.

    • Croft says:

      Some of that may be theoretically true but not necessarily practically true. Governments have defined themselves by getting their budgets through without defeats on the bill or clauses. A minority Tory government would almost certainly have been unable to get the VAT rise through as the other parties would probably have agreed to vote it down – letting the budget itself though to avoid Cameron going to the Queen. (No PM is going to go to the country because to get a majority to raise VAT!) Yet cuts would be the central issue for the government and a barely extant majority it would be easy for Tory MPs to blackmail the PM on pet issues. It is easy to see a whole stack of issues like this where Cameron would struggle to hold his own MPs but where by holding them – and giving concessions – he would allow the opposition to justify voting measure down. I don’t follow your point on numbers C 307 -v- 315 (258+57) assuming all others abstain is a blocking majority without considering several others. The DUP may give confidence and supply but that’s precarious. He would have to horse trade every bill. Even more so since Cam will doubtless have by-elections and the chances are probably on balance he will lose MPs.

      I can’t see how the government could possibly survive the five years – it would be a case of Cam being forced to go to the Q by a failure on a majority issue or deliberately provoking or choosing a moment to call an election when he thought the polls were in his favour. Major showed that being in government but not in power is political suicide – Cam must be all too aware of this lesson.

  3. Lord Norton says:

    Croft: I was relying on history as much as theory. The 1974-79 Parliament lasted for five sessions, despite Labour falling into a minority in the House in April 1976 and ending the Parliament having lost 17 by-elections. The PLP was badly fractured. The Opposition would for a good part of the Parliament have welcomed a general election. Yet the Government not only made it through to a fifth session but also achieved fulfilment of most its manifesto promises. A minority Conservative Government would not face such a fractured parliamentary party (indeed, it recent years it has been notable for its cohesion) and would face opposition parties that would be unlikely to risk taking action that could trigger a general election (not least because they could not afford one). The Government could have waited until an appropriate moment (or signalled that it was waiting until an appropriate moment) to seek a clear mandate from the people.

    • Croft says:

      History is a mixed blessing – rather as armies are susceptible to misguidedly planning to re-fight the last war I wonder how much politicians should regard ’76-9 as a guide or a red herring.

  4. franksummers3ba says:

    Lord Norton,
    The constitutions are different, the times slightly different and the parties different but there are interesting paralells with the Clinton-Gore ticket and administration in some respects.
    1. The Democrats had been out of the White House for 12 years and had left that in very poor favor despite being by far the greatest party of our history.(Note that they had held Congress often but pride is in the WH)
    2.The Clinton camp represented a whole slew of new and agitative elements that were a new faction although we have now no formal factions and needed a coallition with the conservative liberal tradition of a man who was the son a landowning rural US Senator of the old school.
    3.The men were similar in age and made to seem similar in temperament when they interacted frequently and both had relatively young families.
    It may be that some things from their relationship and fates could be instructive within limits. There some number of books on such subjects which might be summarized online although I have not the links at the moment…

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