Coalition faces 'year of hell'

Sir Gus O'Donnell was a key figure during the formation of the coalition
Sir Gus O'Donnell was a key figure during the formation of the coalition
Alex Stevenson By

The final 12 months of the coalition will be a "year of hell", former civil service chief Sir Gus O'Donnell has predicted.

Speaking at a book launch event in central London last night, the man who oversaw the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition warned that its demise would pose big challenges for ministers and civil servants alike.

He said that "year fives" of single-party governments were difficult enough, but had the advantage of occurring because the government had chosen to do so.

In a fixed-term parliament situation with a coalition in power the final year is likely to become even more challenging.

"2014 is going to be a year of hell, let's be absolutely clear about this," Sir Gus said.

"We've yet to see precisely how [the political parties] will start that process of differentiation."

Ministers could request briefing papers from civil servants to be used as policy development for their general election manifestos - and ask officials not to show the work to their coalition colleagues.

The final Budget before the general election will also pose difficulties. Usually a single party in government seeks to be returned to power on the basis of policies outlined in the March Budget.

"You might want to signal in advance some issues like the parties might reserve the right to come up with different solutions," Sir Gus suggested.

"I'm a great believer in trying to anticipate problems. Let's call it purgatory - you can do some things to make hell avoidable."

He called on senior civil servants to act now by establishing rules "in times of peace, so that when the battle starts raging we know what happens where".

Tory and Lib Dem ministers could begin to adopt the 'agree to disagree' formula more frequently, for example.

Sir Gus stood down as head of the civil service at the end of 2011, when he was replaced by Sir Bob Kerslake.


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