Plea to clarify election guidelines

Published: Monday 2nd February 2015 by The News Editor

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Whitehall mandarins should urgently set out the constitutional principles over which leader holds the key to No 10 if no party wins an overall majority at the general election, a committee has recommended.

Guidelines over who leads the country in the first days of a hung parliament must be made clearer so voters know what will happen after May 7, MPs said.

The Cabinet manual, which sets out the “rules of the game”, must address the convention that the need for a Prime Minister to be in place at all times is “unambiguous”, the Political and Constitutional Reform committee insisted.

Labour’s Gordon Brown ordered the document to be drawn up in the months before the 2010 poll as civil servants turned their attentions to how to respond if a coalition had to be formed.

In the days after the result, the former prime minister found himself branded a “squatter” when he remained in office as the parties held to talks to strike a deal.

Since then the draft Cabinet manual has been refined but MPs called for more revisions to be made.

Contacts between the civil service and opposition parties must be authorised as a matter of course 12 months before a general election, they recommend.

The manual also deals with wider constitutional issues, such as the decision to go to war, and acknowledges that a “convention had developed in Parliament that before troops were committed the House of Commons should have an opportunity to debate the matter”.

But the committee said the document must go further to ” fully and unambiguously reflect the scope of uncertainty over the use of the convention”.

Committee chairman Graham Allen said: “We are aware that there is very little understanding of what the Cabinet manual is or does, but it actually performs a central constitutional function in our democracy. As such, the public should be better informed about it and it should be improved to fulfil this role better.

“For example, in the aftermath of the 2010 election, as the make-up of the new coalition government was being negotiated, the conventions governing when the sitting prime minister should resign were not clear and poorly communicated.

“In the absence of a written constitution these things are governed by convention, so you can see how in some circumstances an impasse or power vacuum could arise.

“It would be much better to have clarity, and to have the rules of the game clearly set out in the Cabinet manual. The same applies to important national decisions such as when to send our armed forces into conflicts abroad: the public and Parliament should have certainty over how these decisions will be made between government and Parliament.”

Published: Monday 2nd February 2015 by The News Editor

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