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Gordon Brown and the Liberal Democrats

June 23rd, 2007 (02:12 pm)

Gordon Brown's attempts this week to coax Liberal Democrats into government suggested to me that the incoming prime minister has as shaky an understanding of the realities of the prime minister's constitutional position as Tony Blair. Some of Blair's utterances indicated that he thought he had a direct relationship with the British people, which the British prime minister does not quite enjoy. Setting apart the important but circumstantial factor that the governing party is only the least unpopular of a series of minority parties in terms of the popular vote (and in the 1951 parliament, not even that), the prime minister only enjoys his position as leader of the largest 'gang' in the House of Commons; he is the person whom the monarch can rely upon to manage business effectively there because the majority of the elected representatives there have chosen him as their leader. In turn, the members of parliament who follow their party leader, submit to party discipline and the whips' office, expect as part of the bargain that only members of their party should be chosen as government ministers, unless the government is a coalition between two or more parties. In this case Gordon Brown seems to have envisaged individual members of the Liberal Democrats joining the government without there being a formal coalition. The Liberal Democrats would have remained an opposition party, presumably co-operating on issues where their MP or peer was a minister, or perhaps not.[1] The Liberal Democrats, in retaining their independence, might strain the ties between the Liberal Democrats and their members-in-government, which while not regretted by Gordon Brown, could potentially have consequences for Labour Party discipline as well. While I'm all for freeing up MPs from the diktats of the whips, the evaporation of the quid pro quo of mutual loyalty could set the executive and its parliamentary majority adrift from one another without the executive's independence having its own independent representative basis.

I could see the arrangement working where the head of the government had an independent popular mandate, such as in France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy of the UDM has appointed Bernard Kouchner, a socialist, as his foreign minister; but where Gordon Brown's mandate comes from his party it seems unworkable for him to appoint ministers from another party without seeking a coalition, which does not seem to have been under discussion. Graham Allan MP suggested on The Week in Westminster this morning that Gordon Brown might be the last prime minister not to be directly elected by the people; this would be an interesting constitutional experiment, and I think that it was abandoned after being tried in Israel in the 1990s.

[1] I'm not sure what happened in 1964 when Harold Wilson brought the Liberal Alun Gwynne Jones into his government. In any case Gwynne Jones was not an MP, and Wilson created him a peer, Gwynne Jones becoming Baron Chalfont in (unintentional?) tribute to Kind Hearts and Coronets, Garter King of Arms rejecting his original suggestion of a Welsh placename on the basis that a peerage title needed to be easily pronounced by the French.


Posted by: Virgers! How are we doing with those explosives? (tree_and_leaf)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2007 02:43 pm (UTC)

I'm not sure what happened in 1964 when Harold Wilson brought the Liberal Alun Gwynne Jones into his government. In any case Gwynne Jones was not an MP, and Wilson created him a peer,

Isn't that the precedent, though? Ashdown isn't an MP either.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2007 03:05 pm (UTC)

Only in part. Gwynne Jones was an unsuccessful parliamentary candidate without a track record behind him, whereas Paddy Ashdown has a more high-profile history. (I could see Ashdown having less trouble accepting a more formally proconsular role, for example, becoming Governor of Northern Ireland should that post be revived, though I could see Sinn Fein and the SDLP objecting to it.) Brown is also said to have sounded out the possibility of individual MPs becoming ministers, such as Vince Cable or Nick Clegg, which would be uncharted water.

Posted by: Pellegrina (pellegrina)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2007 07:18 pm (UTC)

I have just started daydreaming about Parrot Knight, MP. At least you know the constitutional position!

Posted by: hack (overconvergent)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2007 08:36 pm (UTC)

I'd've thought that there's nothing unconstitutional about having members of other political parties in one's Cabinet; it's *odd*, and you might get thrown out by your own party because they don't like the person that you've put in, but the problems would be with appointing non-MPs or Lords, rather than with parties.

Are parties even recognized constitutionally?

Posted by: Gramarye (gramarye1971)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2007 09:03 pm (UTC)

But I don't think that parties as such (with the grassroots apparatus) are still formally recognised by the constitution. As a rule, the prime minister is the leader of the largest party in the Commons, but you certainly don't have to be the leader of a political party to be the PM. Take 1940 -- Churchill became PM when Chamberlain stepped down, but Chamberlain continued as the official Tory party leader for a short time. Churchill didn't automatically become Tory leader when he became PM, but it was clear that although Chamberlain was still in charge of the Conservative Party, he did not have control of the executive or control of the majority of MPs in the House.

I think there may be some historical precedent for including members of other parties in Cabinet without a formal pact, but I have a feeling that it was well before 1832, back in a time when parties were a good deal more fluid and more like personal factions than organised institutions with formal popular backing.

Posted by: hack (overconvergent)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2007 09:18 pm (UTC)

you certainly don't have to be the leader of a political party to be the PM

This is very true; to prove that I am a politics geek, I will note that you don't actually have to be in either House to be a Prime Minister (Douglas-Home was in neither while he was fighting the by-election to re-enter the Commons).

I think that the 1930s might give examples too; there was some strangeness going on with National (mostly but not completely Conservative) governments. Did National Labour have a formal pact arrangement?

Posted by: philmophlegm (philmophlegm)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2007 11:54 pm (UTC)

Something that seems to have been overlooked in reporting of the Blair to Brown transition is that constitutionally speaking, the prime minister is appointed by Her Majesty (not the party of the previous prime minister). She will pick the person most able to 'form a government'. Obviously, in practice that is going to be the next leader of the majority party.

It is the government that has constitutional powers. The prime minister has almost no formal power, and must rely on the power of patronage (and arguably public opinion).

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 25th, 2007 12:10 am (UTC)

The monarch's choice, however, is guided by the make-up of the Commons; and while it is theoretically possible for the monarch to apppoint a prime minister who does not have the confidence of the Commons, the monarch runs the risk of bringing the crown into disrepute by doing so. This was the line pursued by Disraeli when he resigned as prime minister following the Liberal victory in the 1868 election, instead of waiting to be defeated on the Queen's speech as had become the custom for ministries which had lost their majority between the 1832 and 1867 Reform Acts. Characteristically he was perhaps recalling something of the pre-1832 world. The most extreme case came in February 1746 when the Broad-Bottom ministry, led by Henry Pelham, was dismissed by George II, who hoped to put together a new ministry led by the Earl of Bath (the veteran anti-Walpole whig William Pulteney). Bath kissed hands but found that it would be impossible to assemble a coalition, as a parliamentary majority was pledged to Pelham; Bath resigned within days and Pelham was able to put together a stronger administration.

Posted by: Gramarye (gramarye1971)
Posted at: June 24th, 2007 04:47 pm (UTC)

*waves happy little flag at the mention of Sir Alec*

Dredging the depths of my knowledge on 1930s politics, I believe that the National government did have some kind of vague pact arrangement, but only because the hung parliament rather demanded it. The assignment of Cabinet posts was something of a jumble, and I know that when one of the Liberal Cabinet members died somewhere in the first few years of the government, Macdonald ended up caving into the pressure to not appoint another Liberal and picked a Conservative peer instead. Not exactly the best way to keep everyone on-side, I should think.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 24th, 2007 11:58 pm (UTC)

How long does the National government have a hung parliament, though? After the general election of 1931 the Conservatives have a majority in parliament, but choose to continue to support Macdonald as they had won an election as part of a coalition under his leadership, thin though the subsequent ministry's claim to represent a national consensus (it's been argued) proved.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 25th, 2007 12:01 am (UTC)

Had Douglas-Home lost the Perth and Kinross by-election, he would probably have had to resign as prime minister, as the Commons could not have waited for him to fight a long series of by-elections.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 24th, 2007 11:53 pm (UTC)

I think that Churchill's appointment in 1940 was presented along the same lines as the appointment of Lloyd George in 1916 - a prime minister who was drawn from the largest political party in the Commons but who was not its leader, presiding over a wartime coalition.

I'd also argue that it might be worth examining where in the constitution political parties are recognised. I think that the formal recognition of their role would come should state funding be adopted.

The base thought of my argument is that the prime minister is still the person who commands the loyalty of the dominant group in the Commons. His relationship with that group is now a formal one; leadership elections in both parties have in the last three to four decades become entrenched, after a long period of emergence (the Conservative MPs having contested leadership elections in opposition, but not in government, except in cases of rebellion as in 1922). It was unclear to me whether Gordon Brown was seeking to broaden the base of his support, or proceeding from a view of the premiership which belittled the role of the party in electing him, and which demands a quid pro quo, that in providing him with a majority in the Commons it must also have a monopoly (or as good as - see Chalfont) on ministerial appointments. This has been the case since the eighteenth century, when each coalition ministry had to include ministers acceptable to the factions who made up the core support in the two houses of parliament, whether they were leading figures in the parties concerned, or individuals of talent whom a front bench could ill afford to be without.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2007 10:19 pm (UTC)

Interesting. I confess that that this story largely passed me by, but I am curious as to what Brown thought he would get from the arrangement. He doesn't seem to be facing losing a Labour majority any time before the next election, but a Lib-Lab alliance, however loose, would be certain to upset any Labour supporters who were hoping Brown would reverse Blair's move to the centre - unless that was actually the point.

As for issues of constitutionality, I think the half-hearted mess made of reform of the House of Lords indicates that the current government (for the next few days) has little interest in the finer points of constitutional history, or in putting checks on an increasingly powerful executive. How much Brown shares that view, and how much he has been keeping quite for the sake of cabinet unity, remains to be seen for now.

Posted by: philmophlegm (philmophlegm)
Posted at: June 24th, 2007 12:10 am (UTC)
Tarkin (animated)

Cicero said that the perfect government was a mixture of democracy, oligarchy and monarchy. He thought the Roman Republic (comitia / senate / consuls) was close to this.

The British constitution was pretty close too (House of Commons / House of Lords & Judiciary / prime minister). However, this government's 'reform' of the Lords has weakened the oligarchy aspect. Mr Blair's tendency to ignore parliament (one statistic I saw the other day is that he has spoken in just four debates since becoming prime minister) in favour of press briefings and soundbite politics has arguably increased the strength of the monarchical side of the constitution at the expense of the democratic.

Posted by: Adilo Creamon (the_marquis)
Posted at: June 24th, 2007 10:54 am (UTC)
Up the Workers

I wonder if an edited version of this would make a good letter to GB to see how he'd react - certainly he and Tony seem to have forgotten (especially Tony) that Prime Minister is not President of the United Kingodm.

Posted by: Kargicq (kargicq)
Posted at: June 24th, 2007 06:59 pm (UTC)

I'm surprised by this post. You know way more about constitutional affairs than me, but I thought -- as others on this thread have said -- that our unwritten constitution left everything magnificently vague. AFAI was aware, Brown just has to satisfy HM that he can form a government. Unless the PLP refused to support him in protest, he can appoint who the hell he likes as far as I'm aware (anyone in Parliament anyway). Not correct?
I actually thought it was a great idea -- government of all the talents and all that -- and it seems very childish of the Lib Dems to have rejected it. As far as I can see, our constitution allows us to move beyond the current puerile party system, and I would love to see us do so. But I'm not holding my breath (MPs have just sunk to a new low in my estimation following their vote on freedom of information.)


Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 25th, 2007 02:33 pm (UTC)

At least the Lords came to the rescue on freedom of information, which some will find ironic.

The constitution may be largely unwritten (there are what I would consider written elements such as the acts of union, the Bill of Rights, the Scotland and Wales acts) but it also involves an amount of custom and convention where tampering with these conventions can change the balance of power between elements. I'm wary of increasing the prime minister's independence from his party in parliament, and his growing quasi-monarchical power (though my former supervisor has argued in a paper delivered to a gathering of parliamentarians and political historians that the prime minister's power has not increased substantially since the emergence of the office) without introducing some kind of formal check.

Posted by: Kargicq (kargicq)
Posted at: June 25th, 2007 08:02 pm (UTC)

Well, it's obviously your prerogative to disapprove of what he did, but it doesn't sound to me as if "the incoming prime minister has as shaky an understanding of the realities of the prime minister's constitutional position as Tony Blair" (assuming you consider that TB's is shaky, that is!). If Ming Campbell had agreed, Ashdown would now be in the cabinet -- Brown was correct in his assessment of what he could, constitutionally, do. No?


Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 25th, 2007 08:15 pm (UTC)

On the one hand, I don't think he was correct, and in declining to support the inclusion of LibDems in the government Campbell acted correctly. If he had not it's true that a new precedent would have been created, but it would have tested the elasticity of constitutional custom and at some stage it, or something else, would have to have snapped or been supplemented by some tidying-up exercise.

On the other, you are quite right in saying that this is my opinion; but it's the opinion I would give were I asked by the government or civil service, a situation not likely to arise at any point soon.

Posted by: bunn (bunn)
Posted at: June 25th, 2007 09:54 am (UTC)

Gordon Brown and the Liberal Democrats

A thrilling tale in which Our Hero, Gordon Brown, must tussle with the mystery of the British Constitution. Will the mysterious Third Force of the Liberal Democrats come to his aid, or will they be his final undoing? Read on to find out!