Lessons from the process of government formation after the 2010 general election

08 September 2010

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons has decided to conduct this short inquiry in order to explore constitutional and practical issues relating to government and coalition formation that emerged following the general election in May 2010.

The Committee's purpose is to review the processes that were followed after the general election, to see whether they tallied with those set out in draft before the election, and to see how fair and effective they were in practice.

Public evidence sessions with representatives of the three largest political parties, from the civil service and from informed commentators will be held.

This discussion paper by the Committee briefly sets out some of the issues and questions likely to be covered in the inquiry and responses are welcome.


The government and civil service took steps before the election to prepare for a situation in which no single party had an absolute majority in the House of Commons.

In February 2010 the Cabinet Office published a draft of a chapter on ‘elections and government formation’ proposed for inclusion in a new Cabinet Manual. The House of Commons Justice Committee took evidence on this document towards the end of the last Parliament, and recommended that the chapter should spell out with greater clarity the timing and nature of restrictions on the activities of a serving government before and after a general election. 

2010 general election

The constitutional arrangements described in the draft chapter were put to the test by the results of the 2010 general election, in which no one party won an absolute majority in the House of Commons. This was the first time since 1974 in which such a situation had presented itself. Gordon Brown, the incumbent Prime Minister, remained in post until an alternative government had been formed. This took several days. The civil service continued to work with the incumbent government, while at the same time assisting the three largest political parties in their coalition negotiations.


There is no formula for deciding who should form a government following an election at which no one party achieves an absolute majority in the House of Commons.

The incumbent Prime Minister has in theory the right to remain in government until he or she has explicitly lost the confidence of the Commons. It has been argued by many that the incumbent Prime Minister is constitutionally required to remain in post until he or she is able to indicate a viable alternative to the Sovereign. This view contrasts with the description of Gordon Brown by parts of the media after the election as a “squatter” in Downing Street.

There is also no set timetable for the political process of government formation. Nick Clegg has reportedly described the timescale in which the current government was formed as “extraordinarily compressed” and Gordon Brown’s departure, when it happened, as having come from “out of the blue”.

The coalition programme for government, which resulted from the successful negotiations between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, included proposals for political reform, some of which had been in the manifesto of neither party. This raises questions about the origin of these proposals, the implications, if any, of the fact that they lack a popular mandate, and, potentially, the process for deciding whether to implement them.


  1. What constitutional and practical lessons are there to be learned from the process of government formation after the 2010 general election?
  2. How, if at all, should the process be changed for the future?
  3. Were there any departures in practice from the principles of government formation set out in draft before the general election?
  4. Were these departures justified?
  5. Was the draft Cabinet Manual chapter on elections and government formation drafted in a satisfactory way, and has the subsequent consultation been adequate?
  6. What impact did media pressure have on the position of the incumbent Prime Minister and coalition negotiators?
  7. Could and should this impact have been mitigated?
  8. What is the origin of those constitutional proposals in the coalition programme for government which were not addressed in the manifesto of either party?
  9. What are the implications, if any, of the fact that these proposals lack a popular mandate?
  10. Are there more satisfactory models for coalition and government formation in use elsewhere in the world, or in other parts of the United Kingdom?
  11. Should the head of government or Cabinet require the endorsement of the House of Commons, by way of an investiture vote?

How to respond to this paper

The Committee would appreciate receiving responses to any or all of the questions in this paper. Although some of the questions could be answered by a simple yes or no, it would be valuable to have fuller responses in order for us to understand the points being made. Some respondents may wish to concentrate on those issues in which they have a special interest, rather than answering all of the questions. Respondents may also wish to suggest any proposed recommendations for action by the Government or others.

Written responses to this issues and questions paper will usually be treated as evidence to the Committee and may be published as part of a final report. If you object to your response being made public in a volume of evidence, please make this clear when it is submitted.

Responses should be submitted by Noon on Monday 11th October by email to in Microsoft Word or rich text format. If you do not have access to email, you may send a paper copy of your response to the Clerk of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Committee Office, First Floor, 7 Millbank, London SW1P 3JA.

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