I’m by no means an expert on the UK constitution but there is one thing about tonight’s developments which made me wonder during this exciting evening: The UK has had a change of Prime Minister, the new Prime Minister has stated his intention to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats but the appointment and the announcement came before either party had formally confirmed any agreement, let alone a government programme.
(The thing is that the UK does not know the concept of an informateur or a formateur. In this case, Brown could have tendered his resignation and continued as caretaker prime minister while Cameron conducted negotiations with the LibDems – and unlike the Dutch, you don’t have to spend months on forming a government).
It is obvious that the leaders of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats want to enter a formal coalition and we should assume that there is a substantial amount of consensus between the parties (if the latter does not apply, look here for an example of how you should not form a government).
But both the Conservative and Liberal Democratic leadership also need to anchor the decision with the relevant bodies – and in the case of the LibDems there is a triple-bind rule in the party statues to prevent the leadership from entering any kind of coalition without securing the consent of the party organisation – Nick Clegg needs support from a massive 3/4 majority in the party executive and 3/4 of the parliamentary group. If he does not, the agreement has to part a vote among the party’s members. If Clegg gets this level of support from the parliamentary party and the executive, we would expect it to be a good thing for the future stability of the coalition, but if he does not, we’re in really messy territory. By letting the announcement of the coalition be made public before the formal accept by the party bodies has been reached, Clegg is either brave or foolish – if he hasn’t put a great deal of effort into testing the waters in his party. (The Guardian says he has)
Needless to say, British media have pointed out that there are LibDem MPs and activists who would rather have died a very painful death than supported the Conservatives – at least before the results of the election were known last Thursday. We are in interesting territory here. And Clegg and the LibDems between a rock and a hard place.
Similarly, Cameron takes a risk, even if it is marginally smaller than Clegg’s. If the deal falls through, he will have to scrape through on support from the DUP and other minor parties and an election in the very near future is almost certain.
So, why did Gordon Brown announce his resignation before the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had formally closed the deal? Was it a spontaneous initiative? (Hardly – surely the Cabinet Office would have prevented this) Did Cameron phone Brown to announce that he was ready to form a government? Or did Brown seize what was left of his initiative to put Cameron and Clegg into what the Germans call Zugzwang – (the ball is in your corner, now you must either deliver or make fools of yourself).
I expect that we will know more on Wednesday. But the signs look set for the first formal peacetime coalition government in the UK since the rather unusual 1931-1940 National Government. Political Science textbooks may have to be rewritten in the coming years.