Analysis: Why the backroom leaders love the coalition

All change on Whitehall?
All change on Whitehall?

By Alex Stevenson

Britain's new rulers are finding much solace in the strictures of coalition government. But there is danger, as well as safety, in the backroom dealings which now govern us all.

Ten weeks have passed since Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander sat in the Cabinet Office, thrashing out the first details of the agreement which would establish Britain's first coalition government since the Second World War. Last night the two men sat next to each other at a Policy Exchange discussion, still friends.

It's as if none of the troubles of this period had ever happened. The horrified Lib Dems reeling as they voted through a "slightly progressive" VAT hike. The dismayed Conservatives watching Ken Clarke abandon faith in prisons altogether. Both sides gritting their teeth as they prepare to fight on separate sides in a battle for electoral reform.

"I've been cohabiting with Danny for a while now and it's a very pleasurable experience," Letwin says pleasantly. Alexander blushes modestly. "It's based on good relationships," he says. "There is a good chemistry."

Only Parliament Square separates the pair from the turmoil of unease which now underpins life in the Palace of Westminster. It seems like it's another world away.

Yet it is this splendid isolation which appears to be making the coalition work. Letwin and Alexander are at the heart of the challenge, tasked with smoothing over the troubled waters as they seek the survival of their improbable arrangement. Letwin says those three or four days holed up in the Cabinet Office, while the world - including this reporter - waited in the chilly May air, created a "bond of trust" which has yet to be broken. There are no surprises in the coalition. "We are very concerned of the need to play fair," Letwin insists.

The pair is slowly discovering the advantages of the new style of government. The Conservatives will never admit they prefer coalition life to that of a straightforward majority. But Letwin gets very close to conveying the impression that all is for the best in the best of all possible words.

If Tony Blair governed by 'sofa', the coalition prefers government by Cabinet. It's "much sounder", Letwin says. And it's based on the idea that the coalition is a partnership, a "friendship" rather than a "marriage" in which the need for politeness prevents the development of personal animosity. There will be no 'Third Man' style memoirs of career-long animosities emerging, they hope. Instead, Letwin explains, "the slight edge of formality... actually militates towards decorousness". Meetings are conducted in a "calm and decorous fashion". Jane Austen, surely, would approve entirely.

The kind of Cabinet government they are advocating is very different from the consensual style of politics usually seen under weak prime ministers like John Major and Clement Attlee.

Yes, decisions are weighed up behind closed doors, just as they were under Blair. But the difference is not with the areas where they disagree. As Letwin and Alexander delight in explaining, an entire structure of sub-committees and review processes has been set up to formalise dispute resolution. Instead the real shift which makes this form of government so distinctive is the restrictions it places on both ministers and civil servants.

"The balance of power between the officials and their ministers shifts," Letwin explains. Initially it's unclear which way he thinks the need to "write everything down" has swung that balance. But then it becomes clear. "It is extremely helpful for officials and their dealings with ministers," Letwin adds. The sheer detail of the coalition's plans, in writing for all to see, helps civil servants get on with the job - and prevents ministers from deviating from the official line. Ministerial autonomy is reduced, to Letwin and Alexander's clear delight. This is not the kind of Cabinet government those constitutional experts would recognise.

Instead it appears the only real room for manoeuvre now rests with that small clique of backroom apparatchiks whose "chemistry" helps them get on so well. Public debate is kept to a minimum. But so too, it seems, is private debate. "The process of dealing with issues as they arise actually benefits the internal discussion," Letwin explains enthusiastically.

Ten years ago the country's leadership, confident in the solidity of its own position, was accused of isolation from government backbenchers. Directives from above dominated the rest of Whitehall. Letwin and Alexander's clear delight begs the question: how much has really changed?


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