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UK Politics

Formal rules needed to prevent Government chaos as the Coalition enters its last 12 months


New “rules of the game” for the Coalition’s final year are proposed today to prevent the Government plunging into chaos and stop civil servants being sucked into the growing rows between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

A Whitehall think tank has warned that the Lib Dems could lose out as neutral officials side with the Cabinet minister in charge of their department, most of whom are Conservatives. The Institute for Government said David Cameron and Nick Clegg should replace the system of muddling through with formal rules for Whitehall in the 12 months of every five-year parliament.

Extensive interviews revealed that some officials are worried about the neutral civil service becoming “politicised” as the two Coalition parties diverge before the election, which takes place a year today. Some officials revealed they had already been told to keep junior ministers and political advisers on “the other side” of the Coalition “out of the loop”.

The report also called for a “no surprises” rule to prevent Coalition disputes and avoid a breakdown in trust. It pointed to Mr Clegg’s announcement of free school meals for all five- to seven-year-olds and Mr Cameron’s pledge to cut “green levies” on energy bills, both of which provoked rows with their Coalition partners.

The institute also said that the Opposition should be given access to the civil service to discuss its proposals for government a year before the election. Mr Cameron has ruled that Labour will be given only six months. Before the 2010 election, the Tories were allowed 15 months but the election date was not known because it was before the introduction of five-year fixed-term parliaments.

Today’s report said Tory and Lib Dem ministers should have a “safe or secure space” in which to seek civil service costings and analysis for their election manifesto ideas which will not be divulged to the other party. But these “confidential channels” should not be used to find weaknesses in other parties’ plans, which would draw officials into providing “political ammunition”.

Peter Riddell, the IoG’s director, said: “The existence of the Coalition has created new problems for Whitehall as ministers remain as colleagues in governing but are rivals in electioneering. At present, senior officials report being unsure where they should look within the coalition parties for a political lead on policy for after the election.”

He added: “As tensions become more public between the two Coalition parties over new initiatives, it is important to have more explicit guidelines about civil service policy advice for the final year of the parliament. This is needed in the interests of both the civil service and politicians - to avoid officials being put in an invidious position between the two Coalition parties, and, more broadly, to protect civil servants’ impartiality.”