A good day to bury news? More spads for the coalition

Yes Liam Fox has resigned after a week of speculation. But this has mostly gone unreported—from the FT’s Westminster blog two days ago: “Liberal Democrats will have a new special adviser covering the House of Lords and five more special advisers covering the work of government departments where the party has no ministerial support.”

See here. And here.*

*Shameless plug for previous blog post.

EDIT: since special advisers work for ministers, how can they cover departments where the Lib Dems have no ‘ministerial support’ (ie., DEFRA, DCMS, DFID, NIO, WO)? The answer is that they will probably be responsible to Nick Clegg.  It’s  worth noting that the Lib Dems now have a number of special advisers disproportionate to the number of seats won at the 2010 election. But on the other hand, as the Constitution Unit has suggested,** the Lib Dems are in dire need of extra support.

**plug.

Strange Love: Or, How Conservatives and Lib Dems Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Coalition Government*

We published our interim report on coalition government Inside Story: How Coalition Government Works [1] a couple of weeks ago, and it behooves me to be grateful for the press our interim report, received. Thus: “How David Cameron and Nick Clegg decide policy – by phone”! and “Lib Dems and Tories get on better than Blair and Brown”!

Alas—that is not quite what the report says. What we say is that formal cabinet government has returned; but that coalition issues are mostly dealt with through informal mechanisms, of which the Cameron-Clegg weekly bilaterals are but one mechanism—to be sure, the most important, but not the only one. None of this means policy is ‘decided on the hoof’: just that coalition issues are decided in informal channels. That’s slightly different.

Do Tories and Lib Dems get on better than Blair and Brown? Well, yes and no. Yes, there are strong relationships within the executive. Yes, it is true that Cameron and Clegg, Letwin and Alexander, work well together. And that makes executive government much smoother. But, but… in Parliament, the parties operate as they always have. The relationship between the parties is cordial at best. And it is at the parliamentary level where problems may emerge.

It’s also important to address a couple of criticisms of our report. One: how can we claim that ‘the coalition is working well’ when a good part of the report is devoted to the problems that the Lib Dems are having? Two: it’s too process-based; too structural. These two criticisms merge into each other.

On the coalition working well: the problem is that there are two measurements of ‘success’ are being run together here. One measure is how well the two parties are working together; the other is the ability to implement party policy and/or the ability to project party distinctiveness. I take the point that perhaps we weren’t clear enough on what our measures of coalition ‘success’ were.

On the first measure, it’s worth bearing in mind that prior to May 2010 coalition government in Westminster was thought to be a recipe for unstable, unworkable or inefficient government: that two national political parties could not work together. But at least in the first year, that doesn’t seem to be so: there is no sign of imminent collapse; and decision-making hasn’t slowed down at all. That is what we meant by ‘working well’. (Yes, now there are the NHS reforms, but is this a coalition issue? There are differing schools: one school pointing to a Lib Dem response following the failure of the AV referendum; the other school suggesting a U-turn from the Conservatives themselves because of a fear of ‘retoxifying’ the Conservative party. And anyway, it’s not clear that this is a systemic problem—yet).

On success in implementing policy—how can we talk of success if the Lib Dems are doing so poorly? And are we not being myopic for simply looking at process over policy? We did say this was not a review of policy. And it seemed to us that there had already been plenty of discussion in the media about the Lib Dems’ failure to have a noticeable impact in government in terms of policy implementation, but very little discussion of some of the very substantial structural problems the Lib Dems have. We thought it worth stressing that the Lib Dems made some crucial choices at the formation of the coalition which continue to hamper their ability to push their policies within government—losing short money, accepting the cap on special advisers, and most of all going for breadth over depth in terms of the allocation of Lib Dem ministers.

But anyway—as I said at the beginning, I’m grateful for the comments and criticisms. We will try to address some of these issues in the next report.

*Next week’s post: Tainted Love: Or, “It’s not you, it’s me”

[1] Thank you to all the interns who have worked on the coalition government project so far. Thanks to Ruchi Parekh (aka: Ms Doubtful), Jessica Carter, Ian Jordan, Alex Jacobson, Patrick Graham, Andreas Kutz and Chris Appleby. Props to y’all—except maybe you, Ian!

The Inside Story: How Coalition Government Works–A Summary

The Coalition in Whitehall

  • Finding a balance between unity and distinctiveness is the key problem for coalition government. The current coalition has successfully ensured unity, and stability; but struggles to allow the two parties to express their distinctiveness.
  • Formal cabinet government has been revived: Cabinet and cabinet committees now meet regularly, but these are mostly forums for dealing with interdepartmental issues rather than specifically coalition issues.
  • The main forums for reaching agreement between coalition partners are informal. Coalition issues are often dealt with before they reach the formal machinery of government.
  • This informality of coalition decision making is based on high levels of trust between the leadership of the two parties. Trust, and the importance of compatible personalities, are essential for coalition government.
  • However, this informality has one drawback: it means that the Lib Dems are often unable to demonstrate their influence in government.
  • Some machinery has surprisingly not been effective in coalition brokerage—in particular, the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, special advisers, and Liberal Democrat junior ministers.

The Coalition in Westminster

  • Flexibility within the executive is not always matched by flexibility in parliament. Compromise hammered out in government has led to excessive rigidity when policies are introduced into Parliament.
  • The informality and relatively close relationships in the executive are not matched by similar relationships within Parliament. In both houses, the coalition is tolerated rather than embraced.
  • Coalition governments often lead to a divide between the frontbench and backbench. Rebellions in this parliament are historically at record highs.
  • The parliamentary parties have begun to modify their backbench committees to prevent the divide between frontbench and backbench widening.

The Dilemmas for the Junior Partner

  • The Lib Dems are still reeling from the loss of their state funding, given only to opposition parties. This has led to the loss of many of their staff. It may help explain their under powered performance, particularly with the media.
  • By going for breadth over depth, the Lib Dems have spread themselves too thinly. They need to prioritise. Given the numbers they have, what can they realistically do which will have an impact with the public?
  • In a future coalition, the junior partner might seek to specify the support to be made available to them, in terms of special advisers, expanded Private Offices, and additional support for the parliamentary party.

Spads: Who they are, what they do, why they exist—and why they will continue to be appointed

What are spads, said everywoman, and would not stay for answer. Everyone knows about certain notorious special advisers—Alastair Campbell, spin doctor extraordinaire; Damien McBride, attack dog for Gordon Brown; and Jo Moore, forever infamous for sending an email around on 11 September 2001 saying, “today is a good day for burying bad news.”[1] Under the Cameron-Clegg administration, media reports on the whole remain fairly hostile.

There have been some dissenting voices, calling for more spads. Jahan Ganesh in Prospect (££); Tim Montgomerie on ConservativeHome; our esteemed (and rather more flush) colleagues at the Institute for Government as well. The recent reconfiguration of No 10’s policy unit suggests the coalition is feeling the absence of spads.

But what are special advisers, and what exactly do they do? There is surprisingly little on this, academically.

A technical definition: they are temporary civil servants, drawn from outside the traditional civil service structure, and subject to the patronage of ministers for whom they work. In layman terms, civil servants are appointed through open competition and promoted by merit. Special advisers, on the other hand, are appointed personally by ministers, to work for those ministers; when a minister leaves, the spad leaves with them. They may or may not have policy expertise.

What do spads do? Most think of them as spin doctors, but this is too crude. Maria Maley, at the Australian National University, has identified five basic functions:

  1. Personal support: managing the minister’s time, determining priorities
  2. Political support: in parliament, within the party, etc
  3. Communication: media management, but also management of relations with other key actors
  4. Policy matters: initiatives, development, implementation
  5. Executive coordination: between portfolios and between ministries.

The focus has always been on ‘spin’, but the truth is we don’t know what the majority of spads do. Some clearly are spin doctors (Alastair Campbell), but others are not (Jonathan Powell’s key ‘function’ would have been executive coordination; Andrew Adonis perhaps for his policy knowledge). There are usually about 75 spads in any one year: we tend only to hear about a tiny few, usually those at the centre; not those in departments.

Spads are often thought of as bright young things with an eye to a political post in the future. They are often thought to be former parliamentary researchers or think tankers. Former special advisers include David Cameron, George Osborne, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Jack Straw … the list goes on. But again: we don’t know if the labels ‘bright young thing’/ ‘political careerist’ are appropriate because no one yet has studied them in detail in the UK (see below for the exceptions).

A final point, before this post gets too long. The focus has always been on spads, and their apparent malign influence—but there is a prior question: why do ministers keep appointing spads? Well—again, we don’t know the actual reasons. But we can guess. Spads exist because there is a demand for them. And there are at least three reasons why ministers may want to appoint spads:

  1. Ministers are overloaded.[2] They just have too much to do—so spads help ministers to determine their priorities.
  2. being (ostensibly) neutral, civil servants cannot offer ‘political’ advice; spads, often being appointed for their political qualities, can.
  3. Ministers want to increase the ‘responsiveness’ of the civil service, which is seen as passive and obstructive; spads can drive the machine because they exist outside the civil service.

There may be a fourth reason: coalition government. Coalition government may require greater negotiation between parties; spads may provide that liaison function.

Whether or not these reasons are legitimate reasons is another story. But these are likely to be the reasons ministers will give in appointing special advisers. We should be asking ministers what they think special advisers are for, and to what extent they fulfil this function (or functions). It is time we moved on from talking about spads in a largely negative manner and asking whether there are too many, to asking why are they there, how they contribute, and whether they can improve ministerial effectiveness.

Background

The Constitution Unit has been working on a grant proposal on special advisers, and so it seemed appropriate to blog on this. For those really interested in spads, there is Andrew Blick’s excellent text. On the internet, start with the House of Commons’ library research note; or  the Public Administration Select Committee’s 2001 report, Special Advisers: Boon or Bane, which is still good value. There’s also an excellent article by a former spad to Jack Straw here, which gives an insight into a spad’s everyday life. The Powerbase website has (very) uneven coverage of special advisers. On what ministers do, and ought to do, there is the (so-so) Public Administration Select Committee report What Do Ministers Do?

EDIT 14/04/11: a very interesting report on the coalition’s spads here:

http://network.civilservicelive.com/pg/pages/view/564295/

EDIT 16/09/12: I should have updated this long ago. But the Unit is now carrying out a project looking at special advisers 1997-2012. Watch for more news here:

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/special-advisers


[1] And of course Sir Richard Mottram’s rather choice response when he discovered Jo Moore’s email had been leaked.

[2] I could write a whole post on this. Ministers have ridiculous workloads. This is partly because of the complexity of modern government; and partly because of an unwillingness to define what a minister ought to do.

Sir Gus: Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before

“I have to admit that it’s not something I’m often asked about down the pub” -  Sir Gus O’Donnell

As noted in today’s post by my learned colleague [1] Patrick Graham, Sir Gus O’Donnell gave a speech on the Cabinet Manual last night at a Constitution Unit seminar held at the Institute for Government. [2]

The speech was nothing new. As someone in the audience noted, Sir Gus spent most of his talk talking in negatives. The Manual was not a written constitution. It was not law. It was not new. Etcetera.

But it sparked in me some thoughts about the nature of conventions.[3] Sir Gus was being slightly disingenuous: there are aspects of the Manual which are new. There were at least two: the extension of the caretaker or purdah principles into the post-election period, and with more substantive criteria (NZ did something similar in 1984 following a constitutional crisis emerged over transition). Ditto with the provision of civil service support during a hung parliament to all parties. These are examples of instant convention: new norms formulated to deal with a new situation.

Before making the kneejerk response—that’s undemocratic!—it’s worth noting Geoffrey Marshall, for a long time the authority on constitutional conventions, did say that one source of convention was simply derivation from some acknowledged principle of government. And this is not so far removed from what common law judges have been doing for centuries. That is, they have extended ‘imminent principles’ in the law to new and unforeseen circumstances. They use former cases—precedents—often to justify their rulings. This was fine in the past, but this is now regarded as problematic (more bluntly: flapdoodle).

This is because there are now two new conditions underlying modern Western society. One is popular democracy, and the sense that law only has its authority because of ratification by ‘the people’. But more important is the overwhelming presence of the state [5] and the popular assumption of a crude form of positivism [6], which identifies ‘law’ in terms of who authorises it, i.e., the political authority of the state, or more specifically, the legislature. This makes precedent and common law decision-making problematic, because this is essentially judge-made law. It clashes with our idea of democracy and only state-issued law being ‘law’.

A recent book by Nils Jansen [7] makes a similar point. He notes that some legal codifications have become themselves ‘law’ (example: the American Law Institute’s Restatements), and have done so despite the fact that they have never been ‘ratified’ by the legislature. The (key) reasons are that such codifications met an urgent need; and the legal community came to accept it. Jansen’s point is: we presume that the state (and perhaps more specifically the legislature) is the only legitimate authority in the field of ‘law’; but historically this has never been so. There are other ‘legitimising’ communities.

This brings us back to the Manual. Am I saying the Manual is law? I am not. I’m just drawing attention to parallel debates elsewhere. Some people have been irritated by the sheer impudence of Sir Gus and the Cabinet Office—how dare he suggest the executive might have a view of the norms governing us, or that he might change pre-existing practices! What I am saying is that the legislature (and the judiciary) are not the only sources for rules and norms which we find obligatory to follow. This has ‘always been so’: it is just that our views of what constitutes law and/ or obligatory norms over time have become radically impoverished. We need to expand our understanding of how in practice we follow rules.

Competition time! A large cappuccino with whipped cream [8] to the person who can come up with the best question to ask Sir Gus down the pub.[9] Answers below, please.

[1] legalese for ‘he done studied him some law’

[2] They have the best canapes there. As my esteemed colleague says: “I go for the talks, but I stay for the scallops.”

[3] you have to imagine me posing like Rodin’s the thinker. It’s difficult. I do slouch a lot.

[4] I don’t mean this in a state-is-evil libertarian manner—I mean this in an anthropological kind of way. I mean, the state, and its insistence on representing the nation, is everywhere: on our money, on TV, in our speech—it infests the frames we use to understand the world. It’s difficult to imagine a life without the (nation-)state.

[6] I have read HLA Hart. And even Waluchow’s inclusive legal positivism. Go away. That’s why I said a crude form of positivism.

[7] great book btw. It’s a legal bodice-ripper. Or a judicial Bridget Jones.

[8] I’m cheap. Sue me. This or the functional, edible equivalent. Eg., some people might want a skinny latte, a pint, fruit tea etc.

[9] Is that grammatically correct? That’s what Sir Gus said, but this latest batch of civil servants are pretty illiterate (so sayeth the Telegraph–I couldn’t possibly comment). Perhaps it’s an acceptable dialect variant?

Tsars! Hunh! yeah, what are they good for?*

*with footnotes!

The Guardian’s most read story yesterday was the decision of Lord Wei, Big Society Tsar, to reduce the time he is working for the Government from three days to two to allow him to see his family and pay the bills. A former intern texted me: “Welcome to my world Lord Wei!!” Cough. Of course, the Constitution Unit maintains a non-partisan stance. So I’ll focus on a small line in the piece which struck me.

[When Lord Wei] was invited to take the role he had expected it to be remunerated but was told only the night before that it was a voluntary post and there would be no salary.

Readers might be sceptical. But this is not the first time that this has happened. While doing interviews for a report on ministers appointed from outside Parliament, [1] one former minister told me how he had faced a similar situation—literally, he was told the position was unpaid the day before. It is a striking fact of British governance that we have a number of ministers and ‘tsars’ who work for ‘free’. Why is this? And what’s the deal with tsars anyway?

The first point to note is that the number of ministers in theory is determined by practical need, but it is often more than not a means of political control. Ministerial office is both a carrot and a stick to keep the parliamentary party in line. The second point to note is that the number of ministers allowed in Parliament is limited by statute. One means by which the number of ministers is limited is by payroll. So one way round this—don’t pay them. The Coalition has about 11 unpaid ministers.[2] ‘Unpaid’ posts keep the troops (and generals) happy.[3]

Tsars are slightly more problematic. First, there is a question of definition. ‘Tsars’ are usually prominent people appointed on an ad hoc basis by government to be its public face on a particular policy area. But it’s difficult to be more specific than that, because no one is exactly sure 1. what counts as a ‘tsar’; 2. what they do; 3. to whom they are accountable. In short, tsars are somewhere between a special adviser and a minister, but have murky areas of responsibility and dubious lines of accountability. On one count Gordon Brown had 25 tsars. It isn’t clear how many David Cameron has, but he has continued the practice with gusto. There are no limits on the number of tsars.

Of course the Coalition Government would probably point to austerity measures and the Big Society as an explanation for tsars and their unpaid status.[4] But tsars now appear to be a permanent fixture of the British political system, and they have emerged over time for more complex (and less austere) reasons than that—including the need for cross-departmental coordination, the desire for expertise and a greater media splash gained by appointing a ‘name’. It may also be that with a coalition government, some policies are better promoted by someone ostensibly standing ‘outside’ the Coalition.

The problem of unpaid positions, and the oddity of tsars were both dealt with by the Public Administration Committee in the previous parliamentary term under the inestimable Tony Wright.[5] There’s an additional, deeper question which the appointment of so many ministers and tsars raises (unpaid or not): what do ministers do? Why do we need tsars when we have so many ministers; and perhaps—vice versa. The current incarnation of PASC has also been looking at what ministers do, with a report to be published sometime in the near future. Questions of good governance are perennial: and they aren’t going to be answered by increasing the number of ministers, or by engaging in the creation of constitutionally murky offices.

[1] Shameless plug for a report that has just been published? Never.

[2] I haven’t included parliamentary private secretaries, which currently number about 45 or so.

[3] Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus explain the complex psychology of some would-be ministers:

If you change your mind,

I’m the first in line

Honey I’m still free

Take a chance on me [6]

[4] *I’m not sure if all tsars are unpaid though. It’s worth noting that just because some ministers and tsars aren’t paid doesn’t mean they don’t cost the taxpayer money. Such positions usually require civil service support and resources, which may be diverted from perhaps more deserving issues.

[5] Plug.

[6] Gratuitous Swedish reference? Yes.

EDIT (4 Feb): couldn’t resist. The FT’s Westminster Blog notes today that Chris Huhne, energy secretary, has been trying to hire Lord Whitty (a Labour peer) to become the fuel poverty tsar. On it goes….

EDIT (6 Feb): alright, really this time—last edit. Promise. The WSJ says it well. In essence, the government ran out of positions by the time they got to appointing to Lord Wei—the intention had been to make Wei a special adviser, but there was a limit on the number of special advisers to appointed (this was political rather than legal, as with ministers, however). The Coalition Government had miscalculated, and so Lord Wei was left with an unpaid job. This is not the first time this has happened. And again, it raises the question of what governments can do, and perhaps shouldn’t do. Big questions….

PCRC: all this aggravation ain’t satisfactioning me

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has published its report on the lessons of the 2010 general election government formation process. The verdict: it’s a little bit unfocused. There’s a lot covered, but not really in the depth that one would like. I don’t feel the need to cover all the points, but here are a few.

The Committee argued that the government formation process went generally well, giving grudging acknowledgment to the draft elections chapter. The PCRC noted the Manual was a “crucial explanatory document” (para 8) but are clearly saving their critical comments* for their current inquiry. The Committee discussed the role of the PM in some detail—again, perhaps in preparation for another inquiry,** reflecting the Chairman’s concern about executive government. In particular, the Committee agreed that the incumbent Prime Minister does have the first opportunity to continue in office and form an administration. Gordon Brown was right to resign when he did, but there needed to be clarity on when an incumbent PM should resign—when there was an alternative in the form of a person, or a government? In 2010, it appeared to be the former.

The Committee wavered on the idea of an investiture vote. As with life, so with parliament: in theory, the idea is a good one; the problem is practice. When would an investiture vote be held, and could it be held sooner than two weeks after the election, which would mean a delay of two weeks before the new govt could take up office?

The Committee was critical of the status of the Coalition Agreement(s), as it had not been approved by the electorate. This suggested two things: first, pre-legislative scrutiny and proper consultation became more important; and second, the Committee thought that peers need not feel bound to apply the Salisbury-Addison convention (which very crudely states that the Lords should not obstruct any bills which were on the government’s election manifesto). The first proposition yes, but the second—adventurous. But perhaps it shouldn’t be, considering the composition of the PCRC. At least two of the regular Conservative members are quite critical of the formation of the Coalition; and there are at least three regular Labour members.

One comment bugged me. It’s a throwaway passage (para 90):

During our inquiry we and our witnesses have raised questions about not only the content of the Manual but its use and constitutional status. For instance, in countries internationally, arrangements for government transitions might be expected to be provided for in a codified constitution, an entity that the UK lacks.

Not really. Actually very few countries set out the government formation process in their codified constitutions. Take a look at the constitutions of the US, Canada, Australia and Germany. In fact, most*** countries do not set out the government formation process in their constitution. In Westminster countries, the mechanics of government formation are more often spelt out in executive guidance documents.

* And they are not alone in this.

** Yes, the PCRC is holding a lot of inquiries. A common phrase in the report is “we will return….”. Another is “(un)/codified constitution”.

***Alright, not every country. Sweden does it. But it’s Sweden. Jokes aside, one reason the Swedes probably do it is because they have proportional representation, making hung parliaments**** common.

**** Swedes don’t call them hung parliaments, however.

Irish coalition collapses

Posted on behalf of Brian Walker
I didn’t set out to give a ball- by -ball commentary on the Irish political crisis but the latest developments are irresistible. Tonight (Sunday) the coalition collapsed when the two Green party ministers resigned.

Seven Fianna Fail ministers only remain, the constitutional minimum for a legal government. Frantic efforts are now afoot to try to save the Finance Bill before an election. The Guardian website reports what is at stake.

“The government has been concerned that if the bill is not swiftly passed international bond markets will panic, fearing Ireland is reneging on its commitments to the IMF and the European Union to drive down its national deficit.”

This presents the opposition Fine Gael and Labour parties with a supreme test. Do they move their vote of confidence this week and precipitate an immediate general election rather than later, even if earlier than the March 11 date set by taoiseach Brian Cowen only on Friday? How would the Greens vote, having just quit the government? Cowen is surely right, when he says the Finance Bill could not pass by Friday, the likely day of Dail dissolution if the government were to fall this week.

Public shame and anger are reaching new heights, not only against the collapsing government (now standing at 8% approval rating in the polls) but against the burdensome terms of the EU-IMF bailout. In response, all parties – even Fianna Fail – are uttering vague noises of re-negotiation – after the budget. Saving the budget could mean electoral damage for Fine Gael and Labour. For once, they may face a tougher decision than the government rump.

Demands are mounting for wholesale constitutional and political reform to remove the scourges of clientelism and croneyism at the heart of Irish public life which account for the crisis plumbing such depths, according to the system’s legion of critics.

Cautionary tales from Ireland 2

Posted on behalf of Brian Walker

Five days in a very long time in Irish politics. After winning a party vote of confidence on Tuesday partly by insisting that the jobs of taoiseach to pass the bail out budget and party leader to fight the next election were inseparable, Brian Cowen duly separated them. He resigned as leader of the Fianna Fail party on Saturday. Why the volte face? Because he’d be humiliated by failing to make a cabinet reconstruction stick (see below). Normally such a failure would seal any prime minister’s fate. But these are not normal days in Leinster House. Passing the EU-IMF budget takes priority. Otherwise, the last few shreds of Cowen‘s credibility were destroyed, even as the man to lead Fianna Fail to defeat in the election he’d been forced to schedule for March 11.

But he may not yet have hit rock bottom. The opposition Fine Gael and Labour parties will move a vote of confidence against the government in the own parliamentary time on Wednesday, Cowen having defied convention by refusing government time. The Fianna Fail – Green party coalition hangs by the slender thread of two votes. They may be just enough.

Privately the opposition parties may well want the battered government to survive and take the hit at the polls for remaining in office to pass the desperately unpopular but broadly unavoidable budget. They also have problems of their own. Labour are bidding to overhaul Fine Gael as the larger of the two and their financial strategies diverge. A pre-election pact between them looks most unlikely, at least at this stage.

One crumb of comfort for Fianna Fail. Unlike the main British parties, no fancy franchise exists to elect the new leader. He or she (a female candidate is likely) will be elected by the parliamentary party, probably on Wednesday, the same day as the vote of confidence, even though precious few of them will survive to serve under the victor in the next Dail.

Coalition cautionary tale from Ireland

Posted on behalf of Brian Walker, Honorary Senior Research Fellow

Students of the perils of coalition government can look to Ireland this week for a prime example of political mismanagement in a crisis.

Brian Cowen, the beleaguered Taoiseach (prime minister), emboldened by winning a secret ballot of his parliamentary party on his leadership earlier this week, suddenly asked for the resignations of five retiring ministers. None of them had opposed him as far as is known, but they had declared their intention not to stand at the forthcoming election. With his party Fianna Fail facing defeat or even annihilation at the polls, Cowen’s aim was to build an election campaign team of new faces.

But the Taoiseach reckoned without the two Green party coalition partners in his 15 strong cabinet, whom he had conspicuously failed to consult. In a hectic political atmosphere, the Greens vetoed his cabinet reconstruction plan and compelled him to assign the five vacant portfolios to surviving ministers. Cowen was also forced to take over foreign affairs himself from the one minister who had opposed him in the party ballot.

What’s more, as a condition of remaining in government to pass the “bailout” budget imposed by the EU and the IMF, the Greens insisted that Cowen name the election date he’d badly wanted to defer – which he duly did, for March 11. The Greens’ veto was particular potent as in the Irish system, the Dail (Commons) votes to approve new ministerial appointments. Cowen’s list would have failed to gain approval, thus almost certainly precipitating a general election before the budget could pass.

It’s hard to blame the Greens for this political and governmental fiasco. Cowen and  his Fianna Fail party brought it on their own heads by trying to pull a typically arrogant  Fianna Fail “stroke.” In former old days as the natural party of government, they might have succeeded. But with their poll rating languishing at 14% – and that before the current shambles – those days have long gone.

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