Prime Minister David Cameron speaking at the first Cabinet meeting on 13 May 2010, Crown copyright.

Coalition Chaos in the 2010 UK Government

We take a deep dive into the so-called coalition chaos in the 2010 UK Government with a retrospective view on the many remarkable events of that government.

Welcome to the ‘chaos theory' of government

Chaos theory analogies need not be taken further, but our contention is that the coalition government of 2010 to 2015 shared between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was a supreme example of coalition chaos. The point here is to recognize the chaotic nature of political forms of government atop a dynamical system. That is to understand the instability of political systems and the impossibility of ever achieving equilibrium.

Image shows Nick Clegg, sometimes accused of coalition chaos.
CC BY-ND by Liberal Democrats

The implication of this idea is to rethink how we think about governments: from sets of rules and static constitutions that aim to create a perfect utopia, to processes: fluid constructions that shift and evolve over time—constructions that incorporate change into their design.

One such construction is the free market, which divides risk across a myriad of businesses, each of which succeeds or fails individually, providing an optimal system of satisfying consumer demand. On the other hand, large, centralized, bureaucratized systems, systems that try to resist change, will inevitably collapse, and the damage caused by the collapse will be dictated by their size.

The theory we expand upon here is that by creating such monoliths we are raising national vulnerability and setting ourselves up for costly recessions, depressions, and even possible revolutions.

Presentation of the Coalition

The Liberal Democrats' presentation of the coalition and their role in it became more confused as the parliament proceeded. Unsurprisingly voters soon became sceptical of the party's actual role. By April 2011, a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times found that 74% of ex-liberal democrat supporters felt that the party had little or no influence on decisions taken in government. Of course, Clegg and his fellow Liberal Democrat ministers were hamstrung by the coalition deal. They needed to walk the tightrope as both defender and critic of chaotic coalition policies and to work as colleagues but remain bitter rivals to the Conservatives. This proved increasingly unsustainable over the long term.

Charles Kennedy successful Lib Dem MP.
CC BY by catch21productions

The story of British Liberals’ long march back to political relevance during the second half of the twentieth century is a familiar one. From a weak base of half a dozen MPs in the 1950s, the Liberal Party built itself up into a political force through a series of by‐election victories at times of unpopular Conservative governments. They became assiduous ‘community politics’ campaigners at the local government level, and in alliance with the social democratic party (SDP). By the time the liberals merged with the SDP in 1988, the party routinely polled around 20 per cent of the vote, but still only held about twenty seats. Most of these were in rural Scotland and Wales, together with a handful of English constituencies which had been won and held by popular local campaigners. During the 1990s, however, the party finally managed to deploy an effective targeting strategy, focussing resources on the most winnable seats and doubling its representation to forty‐six MPs in the 1997 election. Under Charles Kennedy, the party exploited disaffection with New Labour to make further incremental gains, peaking at sixty‐three seats when Willie Rennie gained Dunfermline and West Fife in a 2006 by‐election.

Other parties with representation at the previous general election at Westminster include the Scottish National Party from Scotland and Plaid Cymru from wales, and Respect – the unity coalition and health concern, each of which held one parliamentary seat from England. Since that election, the Scottish National Party have won the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections and currently control the Scottish Government. They also won the largest share of the 2009 European Parliament election vote in Scotland. In wales, the Labour Party remained the largest party in the Welsh Assembly, though Plaid Cymru increased their share of the vote and formed a coalition government with labour.

What is a coalition government and how does it work?

Prime Minister David Cameron in cabinet session.
CC BY-NC-ND by UK Prime Minister


All smiled in the garden of No. 10 as David Cameron and Nick Clegg put the seal on the first “coalition chaos” government since 1945 in front of the world's media. They pledged to lead a:

“bold and reforming” government that would take the country in a “historic new direction”.

As ministers begin their work, much attention is on George Osborne's deficit reduction strategy. But the Chancellor is dealt an early blow as his deputy, Lib Dem David Laws, who was seen as one of the coalition's biggest potential stars, stepped down over allegations about his parliamentary expenses after just 17 days in the job.

The procedures and the way business was dealt with remained much as before. However, there were some changes and uncertainties, exemplified by:-

  • Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs sat in different parts of the government benches. David Cameron on the government frontbench was surrounded by a mixture of Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers and combined teams of ministers sat there when departmental issues were discussed.
  • There were two sets of whips. The chief whip was a conservative and the deputy chief whip a Liberal Democrat. Each set worked only with its own MPs but they met together on Mondays, as government whips have always done, to plan the week ahead. When the coalition was agreed it was accepted that Liberal Democrat MPs did not have to support the government on Trident, nuclear power and tax breaks for married couples. This was unprecedented given the normal expectation that government MPs will support it on everything.

Political Coalition Chaos in Government is Not Unique to the UK

Italy's protracted political chaos risks dealing a heavy blow to the European Union, and Europe's political unity as a whole. Sergio Mattarella, the normally politically neutral head of state, has prevented the populist alliance of the five-star movement and the league from forming an obscure, anti-European government. Instead, he asked Carlo Cottarelli, a former International Monetary Fund official, to form an interim government of technocrats. This means Italy is headed for a second election. The outcome of that election could be more dangerous than the first inconclusive vote held March 4, which delivered such coalition chaos that it was unfit to rule in the first place.

Gilt yields see-sawed, with investors at one point demanding an extra 1. 25 percentage points to hold 10-year gilts rather than German Bunds. It was the biggest spread since 1998. Shares also fell, with the benchmark FTSE 100 dropping 2. 6pc, capping its worst week for 14 months. Michael Saunders, Chief European Economist at Citigroup, said Britons should brace for a potential “meltdown” if there is no deal for stable government by Monday.

“right now there is a firestorm of a sovereign credit crisis sweeping global markets,”

he said. “if markets do not get some sense on monday that there is a solid government with a credible route back to fiscal stability, things could get very ugly indeed. A coalition of labour , lib dems and nationalist parties could well precipitate a market meltdown. “.

Coalition Chaos had yet to set in when this was taken right at the start of the coalition.
David Cameron speaking during his first press conference as Prime Minister. 12 May 2010, Crown copyright. CC BY-NC-ND by UK Prime Minister

Sir Ed played an important role in the Conservative-led government under David Cameron and became energy and climate change secretary in 2012. In 2015 he was defeated in his Kingston and Surbiton seat after 18 years as an MP but won it back from the conservatives in 2017. He has also ruled out any future coalition chaos with Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson and has described a no-deal Brexit as a “nuclear option”. If that did come to pass, Sir Ed said he would push for the Lib Dems to form a temporary government with other parties.

When was the last coalition government in the UK?

It was the first coalition government in the UK since the Churchill War Ministry and was led by Cameron with Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister, formed in 2010 it was composed of members of both the conservative party and the liberal democrats. David Cameron and Nick Clegg formed the Cameron–Clegg coalition after the former was invited by Queen Elizabeth II to form a new government, following the resignation of Prime Minister Gordon Brown on 11 May 2010 following the general election on 6 May 2010.

David Cameron was elected Conservative leader in 2005, promising to modernize the party following its three successive electoral defeats. He became prime minister in 2010, forming Britain's first coalition government in 70 years, at a moment of economic crisis, and went on to win the first outright conservative majority for 23 years at the 2015 general election. The government he led transformed the UK economy while implementing a modern, compassionate agenda that included reforming education and welfare, legalizing gay marriage, honouring the UK's commitment to overseas aid and spearheading environmental policies. During David Cameron's coalition government premiership, he witnessed the “Arab Spring”; the rise of ISIS; the invasion of Ukraine; the conflicts in Libya, Iraq and Syria, as well as events at home, from the Olympic Games in 2012 to the Scottish Referendum.

Surveys from the most prolific polling company, YouGov Plc, in 2010 showed Cameron's Conservatives and the main opposition Labour party neck-and-neck at support levels between 32 per cent and 34 per cent, with the anti-immigration U. K. Independence party at about 15 per cent, Cameron's liberal democrat coalition partners at about 8 per cent and the Greens a point or so behind. There was little change in that overall picture. Government instability was seen to hamper the decision-making ability of the world’s sixth-biggest economy, a long-term U. S. ally that’s also a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council holds nuclear weapons and was a key advocate of tough sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. The threat of renewed moves to make Scotland Independent and Cameron's promise to hold a referendum on British membership of the European union if re-elected were both very real. The UK continues today in 2020 to struggle with these seemingly irreconcilable differences across its population.

The Coalition Chaos Effect 2010-2015

How democratic and effective are the UK's core executive and government systems? This is the question posed by a book titled: “Cameron: the politics of modernisation and manipulation”, by Timothy Heppell, edited by Anthony Seldon & Mike Finn.

The book makes for a good read and posses such questions as;

“How democratic are the UK's political parties and party system?”

The Coalition’s higher education reforms in England

Coalition chaos was never more evident than over the student tuition fee.
CC BY-NC-ND by Photo Time 7281

Higher education in England has undergone a dramatic change in recent years, particularly in relation to the funding of undergraduate study and, as with schooling, the diversity of provision. The coalition government’s (2010–2015) reforms reduced public spending on university teaching by around £3 billion a year and enabled tuition fee income to rise from £2. 6 billion to £8. 1 billion.

Student Tuition Fees were introduced by the 2010 coalition chaos government and are backed by income-contingent loans. The fee rate was initially capped at a maximum of £9,000, although that was almost three times higher than before, for full-time students at higher education institutions with an access agreement acceptable to the office for fair access (OFFA). The loan and fee caps for part-time students, who were newly entitled to tuition fee loans, were set at £6,750 at the same time.

Subsequently, the fee cap has been raised still further with almost all colleges displaying an almost insatiable appetite for raising their fees to the maximum permitted by the government.

The Liberal Democrats’ Mistakes and Coalition Chaos

When the liberal democrats joined the coalition government in May 2010, there was an expectation that they would have a restraining effect on the Conservatives, particularly in the area of European politics. But after almost five years as the junior party in the coalition, the Liberal Democrats struggled to demonstrate their influence over the government's approach to Europe.

Not only did they let the Conservatives lead the coalition's European agenda, but they will be forever associated with the government that brought the UK closer to the exit door of the European Union. This outcome is the result of a series of avoidable if surprising mistakes, such as the choice of Ministerial Portfolios and the party's attitude to the coalition's monitoring mechanisms, as well as some unavoidable mistakes that could have not been foreseen when the coalition was formed.

Nick Clegg took a bold decision to lead the Liberal Democrats into coalition in 2010. They claimed even just one year into the subsequent conservative government to be making big inroads into Conservative policies, but it is clear looking back that they didn't make that much difference while min-office. As the smaller party, this was achieved by blocking things more than pushing their own agenda. But, even if they never to return from their current dire electoral position, it will still be a substantial legacy. Like every party in office, the Lib Dems made many mistakes and none more so than over undergraduate tuition fees. By promising to abolish fees then voting to triple them, they did the thing voters hate most: saying one thing and doing another. It still haunts them.

2018 Liberal Party of Australia Coalition Chaos

In the democratic nations, chaos is never far away and the UK is certainly far from alone in this. Australia was in political chaos in August 2018 as Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull accused supporters of leadership rival Peter Dutton of bullying MPs in a bid to force him out of office. The government adjourned parliament, reshuffled cabinet ministries and prepared for a second Liberal party leadership contest to be held to decide who will become Australia's sixth prime minister in just over a decade. Mr Turnbull said he would stand aside from the contest if a majority of MPs called for a new leadership vote and would encourage his supporters to back Scott Morrison, Australia's treasurer, who was preparing to stand against Mr Dutton.

The nationals remain a country-based party in an Australia in which urban areas experience the greatest growth in population. Since the 2016 election, the nationals have held 16 seats in a 150-seat house of representatives. What this means is that national party policy will not disappear in the medium term, unless the party agrees to a union with the liberals. The liberals will have to take account of the wishes of the nationals, up to a point. However, it is clear that current nationals leader Barnaby Joyce does not have the power to veto particular individuals from the leadership of the liberal party.

Australia has seen coalition governments before, in more recent time than the UK. A coalition had been in power for some time before 1993. But by that time the Australian people had begun to tire of the coalition chaos. The short-lived Freedom Party had integrated with the Liberal/National Coalition, with 4 MP’s joining the nationals (including Katter) and 1 joining the Liberals. 1 defected to Labour, leaving the seat totals for most of the parliament at a very unrepresentative 77 – 73 coalition majority. This left the Labour Party in an unenviable position. Should it get rid of Hawke, who had failed to deliver a Labor government in his tenure as a leader? Did the party need new Brexit later led to a Coalition Chaos with chaotic negotiation. UK Houses of Parliament shown behind a Brexit sign.leadership, most likely in the form of Keating? Hawke had been a great leader for the Labor party, especially during the tumultuous years. But was it time for the Australian Labor party to put those days behind them, and search for a leader who could reflect the new age that the Labor party hoped to usher in. The speculation on Hawke's leadership was largely a non-event. Political capital and goodwill toward the Labor party would be wasted on a costly leadership challenge, especially on a hero such as Hawke.

Coalition Pushes for UK Electoral Reform

If one position unites the spectrum of opinion of the Liberal Democrats it is the need for a proportional representation election system with a special focus on the House of Commons. There are wider considerations for electoral reform; ranging across the House of Lords, devolved government to the tiers of local government but electoral reform of the House of Commons and the attempt to achieve it in the 2010-15 coalition government failed for them completely. The position of the party going into the General Election of 2010 was clear and unequivocal. They negotiated within the coalition agreement with a focus on the main electoral reform issue. The result was the 2011 referendum campaign for proportional representation, which failed dismally to gain the support of the UK voters. Some called it more coalition chaos. Liberals argue that the aftermath shows they were right to seek proportional representation and options for the future of electoral reform policy should still include proportional representation at its core.

The coalition was bound by a shared agreement which allowed the two parties to work together on a number of issues and set out from the start, a formal procedure for bringing together legislation where the parties disagreed (on issues such as electoral reform). The coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats committed the two parties to work together on those measures most important to the Lib Dems. They were involved in producing a spending review in the Autumn of 2010 that reported on how to drive efficiency in the National Health Service, schools and other public services rather than pumping money into services considered inefficient. Still today such policies need reintroducing to avoid the many outdated and costly practices which remain.

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  1. Reply

    In UK I study and find that a coalition is rare, but at home it is common. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is an Indian political alliance made up of center-right and right-wing political parties and led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It was founded in 1998 and currently controls the Indian union government as well as the government of 18 Indian states.

  2. Reply

    Is it any wonder that Clegg was never forgiven by the British public?

    The tuition fees issue rather than being what it was, a Tory idea through and through and the source of the problem, became a symbol of Clegg’s personal failure.

    In the election campaign, he and the Liberal party made clear public pledges, signed by candidates, against any increase in fees.

    AS soon as he got into the coalition he fecking changed his mind! You can’t do that.

  3. Reply

    Cameron was good. You should a kept him.

  4. Reply

    Clegg and Cameron look so young and dapper, but I prefer Clegg to wear a tie.

  5. Reply

    What a hoot! Austerity for what? Now we have COVID virus and they spend money as if there was a “money tree”. Very different in those days when they clobbered me for student fees I can’t now pay back. I lost my job at start of lockdown March 2020.

  6. Reply

    Sir. You say it was a chaos government back in 2010 and on. But, I am sure it is even more like chaos now in UK.

    You have coronavirus shut downs never-ending, Brexit comes but no deal is done, and children are starving in your country. I watch BBC website. it is not faked news. It is true.

  7. Reply

    Hello. Greetings! I study the Democracy. I see many times the chaotic nature of political forms of government in UK it is not a stable dynamical system, that is true. Where do we find better? There are many other choices, but none better.

  8. Reply

    My brother suggested I might like this website. He was entirely right. This post truly made my day. You can’t imagine just how much time I had spent for this info! What a picture of recent history your article paints! To think that during David Cameron’s coalition government premiership, he witnessed the “Arab Spring”; the rise of ISIS; the invasion of Ukraine; the conflicts in Libya, Iraq and Syria, as well as events at home, from the Olympic Games in 2012 to the Scottish Referendum. Thanks!

  9. Reply

    Thanks for finally writing about Coalition Chaos in the 2010 UK Government and I loved reading it, because it really happened! Many memories of those days.

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