Thursday, 20 December 2012

Minority governments needn't be rudderless

So last week I spoke at the Treasury last week under the aegis of History and Policy, that innovative group of historians at King's College London who look to bring together historians and policy-makers to mutual benefit. I can't say what was said, really (though there was nothing vastly controversial), but I can tell you what it got me thinking about.

The topic was the 1976 IMF crisis, that paradigmatic moment when a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer (Denis Healey, above) had to 'turn around at the airport', had to go 'cap in hand' to the IMF, had to squeeze and cut public spending everywhere he could find it.

Well, that's how it's been sold. Actually, sterling's decline against the dollar represented a managed 'float' downwards that got out of hand; the IMF had been into the Treasury plenty of times since 1945, and this time they were pretty gentle; spending cuts were small, and soon reversed.

But the myth has won out over the reality.

Anyway, one of the things that was most notable about the crisis was how strong Healey's Treasury remained throughout the eye-watering pressure - through all the negotiations, the tantrums, the Cabinet fights. There weren't that many leaks - well, not ones that weren't made on purpose. Healey's official team - particularly his relatively Keynesian Permanent Secretary, Sir Douglas Wass - stuck with him through thick and thin. And in the end, Labour decided to stay together and enact a balanced economic programme of tax increases, procedural trickery and spending reductions to get through together.

All without a Parliamentary majority.

This time? Well, this Coalition has quite a big Parliamentary majority (of over eighty), but Lib Dem and Tory politicians have been at each other's throats, there's been persistent leaking from both sides, and Healey's esprit de corps seems nowhere to be seen.

Maybe a minority government, struggling through day by day, would be better for governmental cohesion? It's a counterintuitive thought, but it's something to mull over.

With Labour pretty clear that they won't enter a full-blown coalition with the Lib Dems (at least with Nick Clegg in charge), and with the Conservatives shifting away from their partners even as it becomes clearer and clearer that an overall majority is beyond them without boundary changes, we may well get to find out in just over two years' time.

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