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