After the vote: how would a coalition change policymaking in Whitehall?

In a post on Friday, I looked at the potential composition of a coalition government, and which Cabinet posts might be most attractive in negotiations between the two governing parties. But what would it all mean for public administration – for how business gets done in Whitehall?

First up, there’s the point that a coalition government would seem likely to lead to longer ministerial tenures. Cabinet reshuffles are politicised at the best of times, but in a carefully hammered out coalition government, they’re likely to look like the penultimate move in a drunken game of Jenga. So in order to avoid the coalition from collapsing, we can probably assume that ministers will be left where they are unless there are really compelling reasons to move them – e.g. a resignation offence. Given the sometimes absurd rapidity with which ministers have been moved about under Blair and Brown, this prospect should cheer us all.

There’s also a subsidiary uncertainty here, of whether Nick Clegg would demand and win the right to hire and fire the Lib Dem ministers in the Cabinet (or to make ‘recommendations’ to the PM). But even if he did, I still think the point about leaving ministers where they were, except in extremis, would hold: if one member of the coalition reshuffled its team while the other didn’t, it would look weak.

Second, we have some interesting uncertainties to savour over what would happen about junior ministers. Would Cabinet ministers have to work with junior ministers from other parties – and if so, would they really enjoy the confidence of their Secretary of State? Or would we be looking at entire departments becoming party fiefdoms – raising the delicious possibility of (say) a Lib Dem Foreign Office having to work with a Conservative DFID?

On a related note, I suspect a coalition government might well lead to a sharp rise in the number of Special Advisers, as the complexity of working through party political implications of policy suddenly increases by an order of magnitude.  In a scenario of junior ministers hailing from different parties to their Secretaries of State, it wil be interesting to se whether junior ministers get their own advisers – as is already informally the case in a few departments in Whitehall.

But in particular, coalition government would clearly lead to a seismic shift in cross-Whitehall co-ordination mechanisms – above all the Cabinet Office and the private office network (the all-important web of relationships between ministers’ Principal Private Secretaries in different departments). In one sense, of course, these mechanisms are extremely well-versed on brokering agreement between departments warring over policy. It’s what they do for a living. But on the other hand, a Whitehall turf war starts to look very different when two political parties are involved – risking, at worst, the sustainability of the coalition itself.

Maybe the Cabinet Office would rise to the challenge and prove itself able to bang heads together in coalition government as in other contexts.  The problem it faces, though, is the extent to which recent years have seen the Cabinet Office evolve towards being a de facto Prime Minister’s Department. Could it still be perceived as neutral if it were regarded as answering to the PM rather than (as traditionally) to the Cabinet as a whole – and hence to one member of the coalition more than the other?

Above all, there’s the question of where inter-ministerial discussions would actually happen. Would Cabinet – and its associated subcommittees – be the where the action takes place on inter-departmental (and hence inter-party) negotiations? Or would the real work shift towards back-room deals between party leaders and party machineries?

One might expect Her Majesty’s Civil Service to take a particularly lively interest in the answer to this question, and to do everything they can to nudge the answer towards the former. Sue Cameron‘s column this week demonstrates the acuteness of civil servants’ hopes and fears for a hung parliament…

The question is whether civil servants will be allowed much of a role in any negotiations. There are hopes that in a hung parliament they would be able to claw back some of the influence that they have lost to political advisers. This would be most welcome given that policy performance in recent years has so often been so poor. I fear it is far more likely that politicos in a hung parliament will insist on their personal aides/courtiers/spin doctors being in charge of all horsetrading.

Sounds about right to me – though I’m much less of a standard-bearer for Northcote-Trevelyan than Sue is, and so view this prospect with more equanimity than she does.

[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]