Coalition's backroom boys are as cosy as ever

Behind closed doors...
Behind closed doors...

By Alex Stevenson

Fifteen months ago I wrote a piece about the internal workings of the coalition - one of many, as it turned out - expressing concern about the cosy group of backroom boys running the show.

They had it all worked out, I argued. The intricate web of Cabinet sub-committees which would steer the coalition through choppy waters were so effective because they were so formalised. The civil servants, not individual ministers, were now king. It was a new way of working. It was the new politics.

In times of great strife between warring Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers, one particular sub-committee, the coalition committee, would be deployed. This is a formal body, co-chaired by the prime minister and his deputy. William Hague, Chris Huhne, George Osborne, Vince Cable, Michael Moore, Danny Alexander, Francis Maude and Oliver Letwin are its other members.

There have been one or two rocky moments in the first year-and-a-half (nearly) of life in government. The NHS reforms, the AV referendum, the tuition fees crisis, even last week's rebellion would surely have been thought important enough to warrant an assembly of this sort. No, actually. I've been told that this particularly sub-committee has only met twice.

One of these occasions was before the publication of the NHS' white paper, soon after the formation of the coalition. The NHS was not in meltdown over the proposals then, of course, so this was not a crisis meeting. I don't yet know what the other meeting related to.

It's eyebrow-raising that this important committee has not met more often.

Yet coalition experts explain that it's not all that surprising, really. This is a fairly senior group of politicians; it might even be called a selective Cabinet, rather than a mere sub-committee. So it is reserved only for real crises of cohesion. And nothing yet has genuinely threatened to bring the coalition down.

There's another possible reason, too, that the coalition's ministers have found themselves preferring not to rely on the formality of the Cabinet sub-committee system. It's thought that when it comes to political horse-trading and the internal dynamics of the government, having civil servants present scribbling notes in the corner can act as something of a dampener on the full to and fro. These negotiations are more suited to quiet chats here and there. It's the natural way of government, you see.

Fifteen months ago, Letwin and Alexander talked of the marvellous merits of having to "write everything down". Despite talk of a more 'businesslike' atmosphere in recent months, the initial focus on formality has never quite reasserted itself. Instead it's merely a convenient backstop, needed, if required, but currently stuffed to the back of the coalition wardrobe.

Until some unforeseen crisis requires it to be urgently dragged out for use, the coalition remains as cosy for the coalition backroom boys as ever.

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