The civil service needs to help the coalition end sensibly

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May 8, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

The Coalition 'quad'

One thing we know for sure is that politicians, the civil service, media and the rest of the population will be more able to handle being governed by a coalition than they were in 2010. The constant, fevered attempts to find splits in the coalition have already died down as people come to realise that there will always be splits if different political parties are involved.  Those involved in the coalition after 2015 (it does look very likely there will be one) will understand a lot greater their responsibilities to it as well as how to stay differentiated from their coalition parties without ignoring those responsibilities. But the role of the civil service over the next year may become of particular interest, because they are going to be put under huge pressure from many sides, and it will be interesting to see how they handle that. An excellent article on the BBC website discussed this yesterday and I wanted to cover what it said.

Some Senior civil servants have said that they have been impressed by how well ministers from both parties have worked together – one saying that he had seen less divisions between his ministers than from his previous “single-party” team of ministers. But the civil service has often been put in a difficult position over the past four years. They work to serve their ministers, but in many departments their ministers are from different political parties. This can lead to some uncomfortable situations (as beautifully portrayed in the most recent series of “The Thick of It”) where they are asked to provide something for a minister without copying in the other ministers in the department. Occasionally they have found the Secretary of State (the most senior minister in the department) asking them to do something without telling anybody else, only for that action (e.g. the advertising vans advising illegal immigrants to go home) to cause uproar – with members of the other party in the coalition openly deriding it. It can go as far as the Prime Minister announcing a policy (such as automatically putting energy consumers on the lowest possible tariff) without running it past anybody – leading to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (which has a Lib Dem Secretary of State) trying to brief against Downing Street.

Going forward – and remember this is easier to do than normal since we know the date of the next election – the civil service are going to need to lay down some ground rules if they are going to be able to operate without being accused of unfair practices. The Lib Dems are going to want to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives and this could put their civil servants under pressure to announce and implement policies that allow them to do that. Similarly, most departments in Whitehall are led by a Secretary of State from the larger Conservative Party, and they may also want to lay down a policy marker with the election in mind without properly discussing it with their Lib Dem ministers. On areas where disagreement on the way forward is known – the civil service still need to look at policy options post-2015 and mustn’t be too cautious about bringing those up and moving forward on them. As the governing parties seek to compete more than cooperate the civil service will need to provide impartial advice on this and it may be difficult.

The key thing to remember is that whilst the Conservatives and Lib Dems may not be in government this time next year, the civil servants will still be in place, and responsible for advising on and implementing policy for their department. Whose policy they are advising on and implementing is not clear for the next year – which is why the NEXT issue they need to negotiate is going to be that of giving access as early as possible to senior Labour Party politicians to discuss their policies should they get into government.

For advice on how to do this – they could turn to Sir John Elvidge, who was the Permanent Secretary to the Scottish government during the last year of the Labour/Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood (2006/2007), which began with ground rules being drawn up for civil servants on how to ensure their advice remained impartial. I imagine there needed to be access to civil servants from the SNP, who it may have been obvious at the time were headed towards some form of government in the 2007 election. Elvidge is concerned that nothing seems to be being done now, and Downing Street has confirmed this by saying that a “new playbook” isn’t needed. But I wouldn’t be surprised to hear some stories on this issue over the next twelve months.

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