A mandarin speaks truth to power about life after a majorityby Gus O'Donnell / June 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
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…