by Kevin Meagher
The fallout from Dominic Cummings’ salvo against David Cameron and the coalition government received a less histrionic response from former Cameron special adviser Sean Worth this morning.
Writing in Public Affairs News, the adviser turned lobbyist wrote that:
“Future coalitions will be formed by parties demanding explicit control of distinct areas of policy, rather than simply sharing power. The principal powers, notably tax and spend, and defence decisions, must be shared, but governing leaders will carve out defining areas of political territory on which to build the personal crusades needed to push radical reforms that really get them noticed.”
The current model of zipping ministerial appointments in departments between Conservatives and Lib Dem and vice versa, has seen the creation of internal departmental hand breaks. Think Gove and Sarah Teather, or Vince Cable and Michael Fallon. (Of course, one place it has worked all too well is the Treasury between George Osborne and Danny Alexander – but that underlines a different problem, certainly for the Lib Dems).
Reform-minded ministers like Michael Gove are frustrated by the need to co-operate and seek consensus. For politicians (and advisers like Cummings) who are sure of themselves and are keen to make their mark – or who simply want to please their party and implement the manifesto they stood on – the current coalition experience is clearly a massive anti-climax.
But creating party fiefs across Whitehall – Worth’s alternative suggestion – is a recipe for disaster. How do you deal with cross-cutting issues in this model? Take the recent spat between Gove and Theresa May on tacking extremism. How much more loaded will rows like that become when they are not just between different departments, but different departments controlled by different parties?
If inconclusive election results are to become the norm, then our political system needs a clearer way of responding. Coalitions may indeed be here to stay, but rather than staggering on for five years, descending into bickering and drift in the process, it would be better to limit their lifespan to 12-18 months instead.
This focuses the attentions and energies of both parties. It creates an incentive to co-operate on areas of agreement and on issues that require immediate attention in the national interest. Larger changes should be put before the electorate at the subsequent election.
This sort of arrangement would show that sensible co-operation between parties in the national interest is indeed possible, but it also challenges voters to accept that our model of government works best when a single party has a mandate to govern.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut