Did the formation of the coalition in the years 2010 – 2015 alter the relationship between Parliament and government?

I have seen this question posed as a 25 marker in the Unit 2 paper.

The nature of a coalition should be explained, either explicitly or implicitly with an indication of its political significance.

Arguments for an altered relationship

Collective responsibility was weakened and so there were more opportunities for parliament to examine and exploit conflicts within government. Vince Cable (then Business Secretary) for example clashed with George Osborne (Chancellor) on more than one occasion (see disputes over immigration). The government also had more problems passing controversial legislation as party discipline was weaker. Some Conservative MPs also resented power sharing with the Liberal Democrats (I certainly remember the likes of Priti Patel complaining she was unlikely to get a government post – although, of course she had only just become a member of parliament in 2010).

In a number of policy areas, MPs from either coalition partner were allowed to vote how they wished, in other words, whipping was used less so the Commons became more independent. There was in effect a dual whip system – one for each of the parties to the coalition. The Conservatives had more difficultly: traditional whipping tactics did not work since Conservative whips could not tell MPs to show loyalty to the PM as he had won them the election (he hadn’t) nor could they compel them on the grounds that it was in the party’s manifesto (some things were the opposite to the manifesto), many Conservatives felt that they had been delivered a fait accompli. Long-serving Conservative MPs also felt aggrieved by the fact that five of Cameron’s cabinet members had to be Liberal Democrat.

Changes as a consequence of this specific coalition include the introduction of a number of constitutional reforms (such as the Fixed-Term Parliament Act 2011) that would have unlikely taken place had the Conservatives or the Labour Party won the general election outright. Some of the recommendations of the Wright Committee prompted changes to select committees, which reduced the power of patronage available to and control enjoyed by party whips and raised the profile and effectiveness of the Commons. Select Committees have certainly increased in profile as a consequence of Coalition (or perhaps rather because of the Wright reforms giving them more muscle), and although committees continued to have a ‘government’ majority they were much less cohesive and less able to tone down criticisms.

Parliament saw a record-breaking level of backbench dissent in the Commons (see also the useful revolts.co.uk for a discussion of a number of examples). In the first three sessions of parliament up to May 2014, Coalition MPs voted against the government on 388 occasions (37% of divisions). Some of these rebellions were significant in scope, e.g. in October 2011, 81 Conservative MPs voted for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU and in July 2012 91 Conservatives voted against the second reading of the House of Lords reform bill. Dissent ran throughout the parliament and there was no honeymoon period that PMs can often expect in the early days of leadership, indeed the rate of dissent in the first session was 44%. This dissent is perhaps understandable, considering the ideological range contained with then government. The most significant rebellion of all was over Syria in 2013 – 30 Cons and 9 Lib Dems voted against a government motion to intervene militarily (the govt was defeated by 283 to 270) – no British govt had lost a comparable vote on matters of defence since the mid-1800s.

The House of Lords has become more assertive partly because the governments mandate has became unclear.  In 2012-2013 the government has suffered 48 defeats in the Lords on issues such as legal aid reform, welfare reform and local government finance.

Arguments for continuity

While the period of coalition can be seen to have been more fractious in both the Commons and Lords, there has been no fundamental change in the relationship between the Commons and the government. The fact that both parties needed to ensure that the coalition did not unravel, there was a deep commitment to the coalition programme especially from Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander. Meetings of the Quad (Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Alexander illustrates the commitment to generally uphold the principle of collective ministerial responsibility since it allowed the ‘rough edges’ to be smoothed off policies before they were discussed in full cabinet meetings). Furthermore, this was demonstrated in the vote on the raising of university tuition fees. Many Liberal Democrats were not happy with the recommendations of the Browne Report and would have likely voted against the government rather than abstain as per the opt-out provision. However, such was the concern within the Liberal Democrat leadership that so high-profile a defeat (it became clear quite quickly that many would vote against the government – indeed 21 Lib Dems did eventually do so) so early in the parliament would cause huge damage to the coalition, members were told not to abstain and were thus compelled to vote with the government.

Back bench rebellions that occurred were of little policy significance; it is worth noting that the government did not lose any of its legislation in the Commons.

The way in which legislative committees and scrutiny operates did not change fundamentally. The coalition had only minor effects on the way in which parliament conducted its business. The promised House Business Committee (another Wright recommendation) did not materialise.

 Alternative line of argument – the impact of the expenses scandal can as a backdrop for change that would have happened regardless of the party in government.

The expenses scandal of 2009 had a considerable impact on parliament, which was clearly at an incredibly low ebb. Commons Speaker, John Bercow, described the ‘reputational carnage’ stating that ‘I cannot think of a single year in the recent history of Parliament when more damage has been done, with the possible exception of when Nazi bombs fell on the chamber in 1941’. The Wright Committee, established under Gordon Brown, made it almost certain that changes would take place; indeed all the major parties made commitments to reform parliament in their 2010 manifestos.

Consequently some ‘cleaning up’ of parliament took place:

  • 30% of the Commons intake of 2010 was new to the Chamber and new MPs were less inclined to tow the party line (48% of Conservatives were elected for the first time!). However, it should be noted that majority of the House remained white and male and there was a decline in the number of politicians from working class backgrounds.
  • Five year fixed-term parliaments were introduced (undermining PM patronage)
  • Accountability was enhanced as the Coalition allowed for the introduction of some of the Wright Reforms, including the Backbench Business Committee (BBComm) under Natasha Engel which has allowed the Commons to challenge the government. Several high profile debates on issues such as a referendum on EU membership and prisoner voting rights made things awkward for government.
  • Other Wright Committee reforms such as the changes to the membership of select committees, meant there was less scope for whipping and consequently individuals one might expect as chairs started to be elected (Sarah Wollaston and Rory Stewart elected as Chairs of Health and Defense respectively, reflecting their experience as a GP and diplomat).
  • Recall (The Recall of MPs Act, 2015) was legislated for in the last parliamentary session.
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