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.

Press Release: Coalition Works! The inside story from the Constitution Unit

What works, and what doesn’t in the new coalition? A first year report – full version pdf

Despite the political strains which have affected the coalition in recent months, the Constitution Unit’s research on how the coalition works shows that it has functioned very well in its first year. Viewed from inside, the ructions which have dominated the headlines have not destroyed the coalition’s effectiveness.

The Unit’s first year report, Inside Story: How coalition government works, is based upon 90 interviews with senior people in Whitehall and Westminster. The mutual trust and close working relations developed inside the government should help as it faces tougher times ahead.

“People feared that coalition government would be weak, quarrelsome and divided” said the Unit’s director Prof Robert Hazell. “But in the first year the coalition has been remarkably stable and united. Everyone we interviewed in Whitehall says how much more harmonious the coalition is compared with the rivalries and infighting of the Blair/Brown years”.

“Maintaining that unity in government while demonstrating the distinctiveness of the two parties is the key challenge going forward” Prof Hazell added. “This is particularly difficult for the Lib Dems as the junior partner. Instead of spreading themselves thinly across the whole of government, they need to prioritise their effort on areas where they can clearly have an impact”.

“An interesting development is the Lib Dems’ backbench committees” said the project’s lead researcher Dr Ben Yong. “It is a sign of how stretched the Lib Dems are for resources that these have been created. But it is also a way of preserving their distinct identity, and gives backbenchers regular contact with the frontbench. Conservatives we interviewed have been rather envious, and they have now started their own backbench policy committees”.

The report’s findings and recommendations include:

  • The Lib Dems did well in the coalition negotiations, with 75% of their manifesto items going into the coalition agreement compared with 60% of the Conservative manifesto. But in any future coalition, they should focus as much on the division of office as the division of policy. It is through ministerial leadership that coalition partners have visible impact.
  • By going for breadth over depth in their selection of ministerial posts, the Lib Dems risk spreading themselves too thinly. They may have achieved hundreds of small policy wins, but their influence is invisible to the public
  • Cabinet committees deal mainly with interdepartmental issues. Coalition issues are resolved in half a dozen informal forums, and are dealt with before they reach the formal machinery of government.

Notes for Editors

  • This is an initial report from a 12 month study of how the coalition works, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The project runs until December.
  • Access to Whitehall interviewees has been authorised by the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Sir Gus O’Donnell. So far the project team have interviewed 90 officials, ministers, special advisers, parliamentarians and outside groups.
  • Robert Hazell is available for interview this weekend, tel 020 7679 4977 (Friday), 020 7267 4881 (Sat and Sunday).
  • Browse the coalition government project pages

Press Release: Senior figures call for immediate halt to Lords appointments

Press Notice: for immediate release
Wednesday 20 April 2011

Senior figures call for immediate halt to Lords appointments

Today the Constitution Unit publishes a report, House Full, with the backing of 18 senior parliamentarians and independent experts, including a former Commons Speaker, a former Leader of the Lords, a former Lord Chancellor, and three former members of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. They come from different parties and none, and have differing views on the long-term future of the Lords and its reform, but are united in raising the alarm about the current rate of appointments, and calling for immediate changes.

A draft Lords reform bill is expected shortly after 5 May. But even if it succeeds it will be four years before reform happens. Meanwhile David Cameron has added 117 new peers in less than a year, an unprecedented figure in recent times. The report argues that this has damaged the chamber’s functioning, and that any further increase risks rendering the House unable to do its job. It sets out why the coalition’s aim to establish proportionality between the parties in the Lords is unworkable: requiring 269 additional peers, which would take the chamber’s membership to 1100. It is already 831, up from 666 10 years ago.

The report’s supporters call for three things:

  • An immediate moratorium on Lords appointments, to be lifted only when the number of members has dropped below 750. Thereafter 750 should be an absolute cap on its size.
  • Allowing retirements from the Lords, as proposed recently by a House of Lords Leader’s Group chaired by Lord Hunt of Wirral.
  • Any future appointments to be put on a more transparent and sustainable basis, with the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission determining how many vacancies exist, and inviting nominations from the parties.

Commenting on publication of the report, Constitution Unit Deputy Director Meg Russell said: “It is unusual for a group of such senior figures to come together on a cross-party basis to call for change, but there is huge concern in the House of Lords about this issue. The fear is that David Cameron may unwittingly destroy the Lords through this volume of appointments. We await Lords reform, but in the meantime we must maintain a functional parliament. The risk is that reform fails – as it often has before – but that meanwhile the Lords has become bloated and dysfunctional”.

Notes for editors

  • The report House Full is available on the Constitution Unit website at It is written by Meg Russell, with support from Lord Adonis, Graham Allen MP, Baroness Boothroyd, Lord Butler of Brockwell, Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, Lord Dholakia, Baroness D’Souza, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, Robert Hazell, Baroness Jay of Paddington, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, Lord Norton of Louth, Donald Shell, Lord Steel of Aikwood, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, Baroness Williams of Crosby, Lord Woolf, and Tony Wright.
  • Meg Russell is available for interview and can be contacted on 0207 679 4998. In addition, Brian Walker is the Unit’s Press Officer and can be contacted on 07802 176347.
  • The Constitution Unit is an independent and non-partisan research centre within the Department of Political Science at University College London.


Goats were thrown to the Wolves under Labour

Press Release: Goats were thrown to the Wolves under Labour

The experience under Labour of appointing some ministers from outside Parliament suggests no easy answer to a new call from MPs to reduce the number of ministers in the so-called “ payroll vote” in the Commons. The recommendation is made today (Thursday 10 March) in a report, “Smaller Government: What Should Ministers do?” by the Commons Public Administration Select Committee.

In the last Labour government, ministers appointed from outside Parliament were given little or no induction and many of them were critical of the lack of clear delegation or objectives. The result was sheer overload—one former minister describing office as “the most exhausting job I’d ever done. It was relentless.”

This is the main finding of the Constitution Unit’s report Putting Goats amongst the Wolves: Appointing Ministers from outside Parliament just published. The study takes its starting point Gordon Brown’s decision to appoint half a dozen Ministers from outside Parliament in order to build a ‘government of all the talents’ – leading such Ministers to be called ‘Goats’. The study set out to explore the arguments for appointing ministers from outside Parliament, and to study the experience of such appointees.

Dr Ben Yong, co-author of the report along with Professor Robert Hazell says: “Under the coalition, there are currently only a small number of ‘outsider ministers’ in the Lords, and it seems unlikely that David Cameron will make more appointments in the numbers seen under Gordon Brown.”

Yong adds: “More thought needs to be given to what ministers can realistically be expected to do, and what they should not do. We have been told of ministerial overload, while on the other hand, former ministers such as Chris Mullin have talked of ‘empty’ ministerial posts. The need to define more clearly the functions of junior ministers especially has become even more pressing, given the government’s plan to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600. In such circumstances, will it still be necessary to have 123 ministers, or one-fifth of Parliament in government?”

The report was funded by Peter Scott QC. It can be found here:

Notes for Editors

  • The Public Administration Select Committee is currently holding an inquiry on ‘Smaller Government: What do Ministers do?’, with the final report due to be published shortly.
  • Brian Walker is the Unit’s Press Officer who can be contacted on 07802 176347.
  • The Constitution Unit is an independent and non-partisan research centre within the Department of Political Science at University College London.

Constitutional reforms hit trouble in Parliament

The flagship constitutional reforms of the new coalition government are running into serious parliamentary trouble. They have all been the subject of scathing reports from parliamentary committees: in particular for their haste, and lack of pre-legislative scrutiny or public consultation. Two have been subject to defeat in the Lords, but none has yet completed all its stages. If the Lords share the criticisms voiced by the Select Committees they will want to make significant changes.


The vanguard bill is the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which completed all its Commons stages on 2 November, and by Christmas had been in Committee for six days in the Lords. The bill provides for a referendum in May to change the voting system for the House of Commons to AV, and for boundary changes to reduce the size of the House to 600 in time for the next general election planned for 2015. For the AV referendum to be held on 5 May the bill needs to be passed by early February, allowing just three months for the referendum campaign.


The bill was the subject of critical reports by the new Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the Commons, chaired by Graham Allen MP (HC 437, October 2010), and by the Lords Constitution Committee chaired by Baroness Jay (HL 58, November 2010). Both committees strongly criticised the government for its haste, and for combining in one bill two issues which should have been considered separately. The timetable for the referendum is particularly tight. There was no time for consultation with the devolved administrations, who are dismayed that the referendum is being held at the same time as the next devolved assembly elections. And there was no time for considering alternative approaches, or the option of PR. If the Lords make major amendments, the referendum may have to be postponed. The Lords have already amended the bill to provide for that.

Parliamentary debate on the plans to reduce the size of the House of Commons exposed the absence of any rationale for the new figure of 600 MPs; and the absence of any plan to reduce the number of Ministers, or the payroll vote (the new government had a record 46 PPSs). The government have said there will be a reduction, but not through this bill. Concerns were also expressed at the abolition of local inquiries into the results of boundary reviews (to be replaced by a 12 week written consultation period); at the spurious precision of equal sized constituencies based upon outdated (2010) electoral registers, from which 3.5m voters are said to be missing; and at 18 months being insufficient time for political parties to form new local associations and to choose candidates for the new constituencies.

The Fixed Term Parliaments Bill is next in line. Introduced in July, it had its Commons Second Reading in September, and by Christmas had undergone just two days in Committee (of the whole House). This bill has also been the subject of a quick report from the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (HC 436, September 2010), and a detailed inquiry by the Lords Constitution Committee (HL 69, December 2010). Both committees suggested a four rather than a five year term. On the wider issue, the Lords Committee were not convinced that a strong enough case had been made for fixed term Parliaments. The Committee also criticised the date clash with the devolved elections in May 2015, and every 20 years thereafter. It also pointed out that the Parliament Acts cannot be applied to the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill, so the Commons cannot override the Lords.

The third bill in trouble is the European Union Bill, which aims to strengthen the UK procedures for agreeing EU decisions and Treaty changes. It provides a sovereignty clause confirming that ultimate legal authority remains with Westminster; and for a referendum lock on any Treaty transferring further powers to the EU. The sovereignty clause was strongly criticised by the Commons European Scrutiny Committee, chaired by Bill Cash MP (HC 633-I). After taking evidence from EU and constitutional legal experts, the committee concluded that the legislative supremacy of Parliament was not under threat from EU law; so the sovereignty clause was unnecessary. It was also unlikely to have any effect, not least since it could be repealed by any future parliament. This second argument will also apply to the provisions for a referendum lock, to which the committee will return at a later date.

Finally there is the Public Bodies Bill, which started in the House of Lords in October. Following the Cabinet Office review of public bodies, led by Francis Maude MP, the bill allows Ministers to make orders abolishing, merging or modifying a wide range of public bodies. The Lords Constitution Committee issued a powerful warning in November about the extraordinary scope of the Henry VIII powers in the bill (HL 51, November 2010), repeated by the Lord Chief Justice when he gave evidence before them in December (see page 00). Labour opposition peers are ensuring that the bill makes painfully slow progress: so slow that the government may start all night sittings. The bill’s opponents will be further encouraged by the damning report of the Commons Public Administration Committee, whose chair Bernard Jenkin MP described the government’s bonfire of the quangos as ‘botched’ (HC 537, January 2011).

These bills will provide an early test of the extent to which the Lords are willing to vote down legislation of the coalition government. With Lib Dem peers committed to support the coalition, it should be in a stronger position than its Labour predecessor. The Crossbenchers now hold the swing votes.  But in the first 31 divisions in the Lords the government has been defeated eight times: much the same rate as under the previous government. And with the government’s decision to extend the first session for two years the Parliament Act is a weaker instrument, increasing the Lord’s powers of delay.

The fate of this legislation also provides an early test of Nick Clegg as leader of the coalition’s constitutional reform programme. There was no need to introduce these bills at quite such reckless speed. More deliberation would have allowed for consultation, long term planning, and better crafted legislation. The AV referendum is likely to be lost because of the mad rush. The plans for 200 state funded primaries are being shelved, as the government realises the consequences for 650 MPs competing for re-selection in new constituencies. It is not a good omen for the forthcoming plans for Lords reform. But having learnt some painful lessons, the government may now be willing to move more slowly.

This is the lead article in the Unit’s newsletter, the Monitor, now available to view on our website at the link below. It includes further reports on parliament, freedom of information, the executive and the judiciary.