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Keywords:

  • coalition government;
  • United Kingdom;
  • Clegg;
  • N. W. P. (b. 1967);
  • Cameron;
  • D. W. D. (b. 1966);
  • Conservative party;
  • Liberal Democrats

Insider and journalistic accounts of the formation in May 2010 of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition actually, although not explicitly, rely on types of explanation familiar to those who study politics. They tell us that structure (or at least the economy) was important. So too, they suggest, were institutions (timing and the rules of the game). They also stress the importance of contingency (‘events, dear boy, events’) and agency (who did and said what to whom). While none of these things were unimportant, they only served to make certain an outcome that anyone with a passing acquaintance with the theory and the practice of coalition formation would have predicted—namely a ‘minimum winning coalition’. The only thing that could have made that outcome uncertain was a fundamental ideological difference between the two parties involved; however, it quickly became apparent—to the surprise of those of us who failed to appreciate how much the Liberal Democrats had changed—that no such difference existed. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the coalition formed was not merely minimum winning but ‘minimum connected winning’. As such, its formation was not so much breathtakingly bold and exciting as pretty much inevitable. In the end, the maths and the physics mattered more than the chemistry. Fortunately for the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats seriously underplayed their hand in the negotiations, with possibly disastrous consequences for them in the long term.