In an earlier post (28th May, 2013) I suggested that at least ten days after a general election be allowed for the formation of a government – time which would be especially important when a coalition government of two or more parties was being put together.
I want now to suggest that it is rather silly to try to apply to a coalition government the same rules of collective responsibility as have traditionally applied to one-party governments. I suggest that any new coalition agreement should divide issues into at least four categories:
- Those areas where both (or all) the parties are agreed and on which they will work together and support each other both inside and outside parliament.
- Those areas on which the minority party(ies) do not agree with the majority party, but promise to offer “confidence and support” whilst reserving the right to offer alternative courses.
- Those areas where the minority party (ies) do not agree with the majority party and reserve the right to campaign on alternative policies and to abstain on any vote in parliament.
- Those areas on which there is no agreement and on which the minority parties have the right to campaign and vote independently.
Such categorisation would avoid some of the embarrassments for Liberal Democrats which have arisen over the past three years, many arising from Nick Clegg’s naïve assertion that the coalition members must “own” all that the government does. From my point of view the main embarrassment has been and continues to be Liberal Democrat support for Osborne’s economic policies: others may be concerned about other issues (support for the restructuring of the NHS, or the creation of “free” schools and extension of the academy programme, for example).
An attempt to categorise issues in the above manner in the 2010 agreement would, for example, have helped clarify the Conservatives’ intentions on electoral reform and reform of the second chamber - that their promise to introduce measures to facilitate them did not, we realised too late, imply that they would actually vote for them.
It is of course quite possible that haggling in such detail would take more than ten days, but I’m fairly certain that the “almighty markets” would soon get used to the idea, and the sky would not fall in.