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No, prime minister: Britain will punch below its weight for as long as it has minority government

A mandarin speaks truth to power about life after a majority
June 20, 2017
Read more: State of denial: both major parties have ambitious plans—but can Britain afford them?

On Election Day I was teaching at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford. By coincidence David Cameron was there for a meeting of the Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development. I joked that the UK could be classified as a fragile state. Now that joke is all too real. The current situation is reminiscent of the 1970s, and Labour’s experience of minority governments then does not augur well. This government is unlikely to run its full term and the current prime minister is unlikely to lead her party into the next election.

My successor as Cabinet Secretary has a much harder task than I had in supporting a minority government, rather than a coalition. Of course, the Civil Service has been preparing for all possible outcomes: coalitions, minorities and vanilla one-party government. But given the pre-election polls, a minority Conservative government relying on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) probably didn’t get the attention it deserved. Officials who recall 2010 know all about “supply and confidence” deals. They were regarded as a very weak fallback if a full coalition had proved impossible. As George Osborne has explained, a coalition was chosen because it could cover a full programme, a full five-year term, and be very stable. I am tempted to say strong and stable, as it also managed to make tough choices, not least halving the deficit from 10 per cent of GDP. This was only possible because a full coalition implied a set of mutually agreed policies policed by both parties. That is not feasible this time.

Task one for the Civil Service is to support the PM in finding a programme for government that has the backing of the DUP and, just as importantly, her own backbenchers. On Brexit the DUP will want a guarantee of no reintroduction of a hard border with the Republic. That is a very difficult issue for a PM who also needs to keep her hardline Brexiteers on side. The DUP will also want more resources for Northern Ireland. The Treasury will be rightly very worried by this. The economy is slowing—just 0.2 per cent growth last quarter—and tax receipts will suffer. A minority government will find it hard to pass tough measures to cut spending or increase taxes. People are living longer and want better public services, which points to further difficult choices. But it is hard to see how a minority government can legislate on them. The House of Lords will make life even harder: there is a large majority against the government. Anything controversial will be thrown back to the Commons, as tax credits recently were. (And in this hung parliament situation, I predict rows about precisely what is covered by the Salisbury Convention, by which the Lords do not oppose legislation to implement the pledges in a government’s winning manifesto.)

Hence the second task is to decide what to ditch from the manifesto. Grammar schools, the breaking of the pensions triple lock, the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, tackling social care costs, and a free vote on fox hunting may well be consigned to the waste bin of history. Some may be revisited, but must wait for a government that really is strong and stable. More effort will be required on parliamentary management. Andrea Leadsom has one of the toughest jobs as the new Leader of the Commons. She will need to strike deals and warn the cabinet about what is possible to get through the House. There is a risk that she will end up making political deals in dank back-offices that can’t withstand the daylight.

The third task is sorting out the Brexit negotiating position. Much has been prepared, but that will have to be revisited, and not only because of the DUP. Ruth Davidson, the impressive Scottish Conservative leader, now has a lot of influence and could question leaving the single market. She will have the support of business and the Treasury. To stand any chance of succeeding in the negotiations, the government must set out the key parameters and then let the Civil Service consult with business, unions, consumer groups and the EU27. This would be easier if the Department for Exiting the European Union were brought fully into the Cabinet Office, but it is probably too late for that.

On migration, the tens of thousands target, for which no policies have yet been announced, will be up for grabs. The Civil Service has been working on the regulatory structures needed to support it: all impose burdens on employers and landlords. Brexit also requires legislation in many other areas, including setting up a customs regime, and over 30 new regulatory bodies to replace work currently done by the EU. All are controversial and may attract dissent from proponents of both hard and soft Brexits, for different reasons.

In all this, the prime minister will be hampered by a reluctance by some to engage with her because they see her as temporary. The harsh reality is that no one can rule out a leadership challenge or another election in the coming months. That is unhelpful when trying to build relationships with EU colleagues or other G7 and G20 leaders. Britain will punch below its weight for as long as it has a minority government.

At times like this I am grateful we have a strong home Civil Service in Westminster and a separate Northern Ireland Service at Stormont, where they have been quietly managing the business of government for some time now. I hope the prime minister learns from this experience that effective government requires teamwork both with Cabinet and the Civil Service. And if I were her, I would pick up the phone to John Major, who managed a small Conservative majority with rebellious backbenchers through a very turbulent period—and secured a first ceasefire, bringing peace to Northern Ireland.