UK: Public Affairs And A Minority Government

Last Updated: 1 September 2017
Article by Stuart Thomson

With the dust settling on the General Election and with everyone starting to get used to the idea of the Conservatives operating as a minority government, it is time to think about how public affairs should operate. What is the impact on public affairs?

Fundamentally, the whole environment is a lot more politicised. All decision will be seen through the prism of what it means for the next general election with all parties operating in 'stand-by mode' for another election. There will be no ability to 'hide' difficult decisions, to have the good news to come later or the benefits be delivered over time. Everything will need to be a lot more immediate. In Parliamentary terms, this means everything being seen through the possibility of a government defeat.

So cross-party engagement increases in importance because coalitions of interest will carry more weight. Even a relatively small group of Parliamentarians could potentially do damage to the government. This group, in turn, is more likely to come together and be effective if there is wider public support for a cause.

So what else is important for us to consider?

  • The importance of the constituency MP – you need friends wherever you can get them from, a small number working together offers the real prospect of exerting pressure on government. This may seem like a simple starting point but with the election mode in mind, engagement needs to start from the bottom up.
  • Good contacts across all parties – far from the Conservatives being in power for a generation, engagement needs to take place across all the political parties. Information too will come from a variety of sources and will be even more critical to how any organisation behaves and engages.
  • Emphasis on Parliament – Ministers will spend more time in Parliament and less in their own departments. The role of Select Committees in holding government departments to account will have real impact as will the reports they publish.  The election of Select Committee chairs will provide helpful guidance on not just who is important but which groups look influential as well. Engagement with Select Committee members will continue to be important and maybe the role played by APPG will increase in importance as they, in effect, provide a ready-made coalition of interests.
  • Be ready for another General Election – there are several aspects to this consideration. One is that all individual MPs will be looking towards their constituencies even more so than usual (especially if their majority is slim). But other organisations, such as charities, may be looking more about spending limits on campaigns and what they are actually allowed to do.  A possible election also needs to be factored into programmes, timetables and considered a potential risk. Maybe the mapping out of all potential election outcomes needs to be a little more comprehensive than was recently the case...
  • It's not just about inflicting pressure – whilst many be thinking of a minority government in terms of what can be extracted from decision-makers, ie wins, the flip side of the equation is giving Government some backbone so that do not change position, backslide on existing agreements or simply give into others. One person's win, is another's defeat.
  • That means standing strong against others. You can only do that if you are ready for push-back and are prepared for it. The pressure could come from activists, competitors or the media. This may also be the same groups that stand against you if you are trying to push forward an agenda as well.Motivating numbers could well be critical either in advocating or defending positions. There will certainly be need to be a piece of work around 'what will the voters think' to accompany campaigning.
  • Track positions over time – issues and sentiment could move quickly so the more you can keep on top of this the better. That could come through contacts but could also be more organised sentiment tracking through polling.

For officials, they are already being told to avoid things that need legislation, to consider costs (despite the 'end of austerity') and think about the popularity of an issue. Whilst the latter should not really be for officials to consider, that could mean that Special Advisers are even busier.

This general approach is backed-up by the announcement that there is to be no Queen's Speech in 2018. It shows that there will be little else outside of Brexit but also every effort is being put into minimising the number of times that the Government could be defeated, let alone on its own legislation.

There are also other implications from the general election result such as the need to consider the potential role of and implications for young people who appear to have woken from their political slumber. But there may also start to emerge a more open environment for policy making at the very top of government as well.

Certainly, there are more opportunities to highlight issues with government and to push forward agendas. So the result is about opportunities but also threats.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Stuart Thomson
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