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Coalition government unlikely to last full term

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in comparative perspective

Wed, 29 Jun 2011

The current coalition government only has a one-in-five chance of making it the full five years, according to research by an academic at the University of East Anglia.

Using political science models Dr Chris Hanretty outlines why a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was always the most likely option, explains why coalition negotiations concluded so quickly, and predicts the expected duration of the coalition.

While the coalition should last longer than the average British government, Dr Hanretty argues that it has just a one-in-five chance of lasting the full distance unless the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill is passed. Even with that extra guarantee, which will be considered again by the House of Commons next week, it still only has a one-in-three chance of making it.

The formation, following the general election of 2010, of a coalition government is a rare
thing in British politics. Excluding the present government, there have been eight coalition
governments in Britain since the 1850s, but only one since 1945, the 1951-55 union between the Conservatives and the National Liberals.

Whilst coalitions are rare in British politics, they are common in other parliamentary democracies. Indeed, most governments are coalitions. Dr Hanretty suggests that for the UK, after the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition the next most likely option was not a Conservative minority government but rather a "grand coalition" of Labour and Conservatives, which most would describe as unlikely.

"Because coalition governments are so rare in Britain, we don't have very many good insights about how they behave. Borrowing models used to explain coalition behaviour in other parliamentary democracies can help us make our intuitions more precise - and show the real risk of early dissolution of Parliament," said Dr Hanretty, lecturer in politics in the School of Political, Social and International Studies.

"It was because of this risk, and in particular the risk of a strategic dissolution following invented or real policy differences between the parties, that led the Liberal Democrats to insist on changing the rules for dissolving Parliament, ending prime ministerial discretion over dissolution. Changes to the rules concerning dissolution of Parliament are important - not least because only a minority of post-war governments have ever lasted the maximum possible parliamentary term."

Dr Hanretty added: "The models of Cabinet duration suggest that the coalition will likely last longer than the average post-war British coalition, at close to four years - but even assuming passage of the Fixed Terms Parliaments Bill the chances of the coalition lasting the full five years are not good, at one-in-three.

"If the coalition does last the full five years, it may be because it has effectively gone into neutral, having taken many of the decisions in the coalition agreement and awaiting an economic upswing."

Dr Hanretty will present his research, entitled The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in comparative perspective, at The Coalition at One, a two-day conference starting today in London. The conference has been organized by the School of Political, Social and International Studies at UEA, in partnership with the Institute for Government and the Mile End Group, Queen Mary, University of London.

The conference brings together leading practitioners and academics to discuss the questions posed by the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in a political system identified so closely with single-party government. Among the questions to be addressed are: the lessons from pre-1945 coalitions, the Lib-Lab pact, and devolved or sub-national government; the formation of the coalition; how the UK experience compares with coalition government elsewhere in Europe; how the coalition has affected Westminster and Whitehall; how the grassroots membership view the coalition; and attitudes towards the coalition in the media and public.

Speakers include constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor, founder of Ipsos MORI Bob Worcester, political historian Peter Hennessy, Andrew Adonis, director of the Institute for Government, former home secretary and UEA visiting professor Charles Clarke, Iain Dale, journalist and blogger, and political editors Adam Boulton (Sky News) and Nick Robinson (BBC).

The Coalition at One takes place from June 29-30 at the Institute for Government, 2 Carlton Gardens, London SW1Y 5AA.