The recent resignation of Lib Dem Norman Baker from his position as Home Office minister may not rank in the history books with the great resignations, such as that of Aneurin Bevan from Attlee’s cabinet in 1951 or the dramatic exit of Michael Heseltine from Thatcher’s cabinet in 1986. However, it will remain of interest to you as you watch the working of our present coalition government. This is questioning some of the fundamental beliefs regarding the way Britain is governed. In answering most questions on cabinet government you will need to note these effects.
The life of the coalition has given students of British politics cause to ponder across a wide front. You will need to place several of the accepted norms and conventions of Westminster and Whitehall life that you study under the microscope. The position has not of course been static. This is illustrated in the way that Baker moved from warm words of cooperation, expressed upon his appointment earlier in 2014, to his exasperated declaration that working with Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May was like ‘walking through mud’. The earthy analogy stood in stark contrast to the pictures taken in the Downing Street rose garden in May 2010, when party leaders David Cameron and Nick Clegg stood like newly weds as they promised to honour and obey for the good of the nation (see page 382). At that time a general election was safely behind them, but in November 2014 it loomed ominously in a not-too-distant future.
The coming months will be of particular interest to you on a number of fronts. While students of astrophysics wonder at the passage of the Rosetta craft way out in space, students of politics may contemplate the possible fate of Nick Clegg. Has he, like Icarus, flown too close to the sun, with wings that will melt in the growing heat of a prolonged election campaign? Beyond this there are wider constitutional matters to interest you.
What value can be placed on party election manifestos? While not legally binding, the promises made in a campaign carry some expectation of being realised under a single-party government. Under a coalition, manifestos must be replaced with a coalition agreement, formed not in the optimistic campaign headquarters but in the secretive committee rooms that were once filled with smoke. When shackled to partners with different agendas, pre-election manifesto brochures can be worth no more than the glossy paper they were printed on. This was a painful lesson first learned by the Liberal Democrats over student fees but was to be felt by both partners over the coalition years.
The position of the Deputy Prime Minister can also become interesting under coalition conditions. Generally it has not been seen as a key position, of less significance even than a US vice-president. While Michael Heseltine was a dominant presence in the Major government, Geoffrey Howe was widely seen as being insulted when appointed to the position by Margaret Thatcher, having previously been Foreign Secretary. Labour’s John Prescott sometimes appeared distant from the centre of power under Blair and has since bemoaned his lack of influence. As Prime Minister, Gordon Brown did not even appoint a deputy. However, in circumstances of coalition, a convention may emerge in which the position falls to the leader of the minority partner and this should elevate the role. In the war-time coalition Clement Attlee, the Labour leader, was a key figure, seen by some as effectively the Prime Minister on the home front. His rise to the position of Prime Minister after the 1945 general election seemed a natural progression. In the present coalition, Nick Clegg has assumed some importance. Often appearing in public, standing shoulder to shoulder with David Cameron and present at inner cabinet meetings (the ‘quad’), his presence has been necessary to signify the changed nature of the executive. With the threat of lining up his backbench troops with the opposition, he has been able to exert genuine policy influence. This was demonstrated in January 2013 when, bruised by the Conservative behaviour over the referendum on electoral reform, he was able to block the redrawing of the electoral boundaries.
The doctrine of collective responsibility explained on pages 469-71 also calls for reappraisal. Can all members of a coalition government be relied upon to tell the same story? Previous campaigning speechmaking may show them to be clearly associated with ideologies and policies at variance with the official line. Many Conservative MPs greeted Baker’s resignation with delight and the Home Secretary was hailed as something of a heroine. Indeed, collective responsibility can go out of the constitutional window as an election draws near. As the life of the government nears its end before the march of the Grim Reaper in the form of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, the constitutional complexities become more starkly visible and the bonds of coalition begin to unravel. When Chancellor George Osborne presented his Autumn Statement to the Commons in November 2014, Nick Clegg chose to travel to Cornwall rather than sit alongside the Prime Minister for the occasion, and Business Secretary Vince Cable went so far as to demand that the Office for Budget Responsibility put out a statement laying down the difference between Conservative and Lib Dem economic thinking.
Coalition government impacts on one of the most central debates in the study of British politics: the distribution of power within the core executive. This leads to the question: has Britain evolved, or is it evolving, a quasi-presidential system of government, an ‘elective dictatorship’? The making of cabinet appointments, the distribution of ministerial portfolios and the dismissal and reshuffling of colleagues are all limited by the pressure to accommodate the junior partner. In 2013 Vince Cable appeared to compare Cameron’s rhetoric on immigration to the infamous ‘rivers of blood speech’ by Enoch Powell, yet despite calls for him to do so, Cameron was not able to sack the minister.
There can also be tensions within the parties. It is argued on pages 329-31 that cohesion is an important factor in a party’s success in gaining and holding office. How comfortable have the rank-and-file MPs been with the feeling that their leaders are being led astray by their partners? The party leaders have also come under fire as they appear to trim policies. David Cameron has suffered more than Nick Clegg in this respect as his Eurosceptic wing, seeing Europhilia in the DNA of the Lib Dems, urge an in-out referendum. Many appear tempted by the siren calls from Nigel Farage and UKIP, with Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless succumbing to the temptation to defect. As well as Europe, dissatisfaction over policies such as gay marriage and overseas aid prompted reports of plotting against the Prime Minister and calls for a change of leadership. Nick Clegg has not been immune from criticism as Lib Dem MPs eye their poll ratings with dismay. In May 2014 Liberal Democrat Voice reported 48 per cent of the party’s MPs to be dissatisfied with him as leader.
Of course, an underlying question remains. How probable is it that coalition government will become the norm? Britain still has its first-past-the-post electoral system for Westminster elections, which is supposed to favour single-party government. On the other hand, neither of the two main parties stands in a commanding position in the polls and UKIP appears to be on a relentless march and, according to current polls, the Scottish Nationalists threaten to take some 50 Westminster seats in the general election. British citizens may feel a sense of unease over the way they are governed but you, as a student of politics, can relish the study of these interesting times.