2010 coalition talks 'piece of cake' compared with 2015, says O'Donnell

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The 2010 coalition negotiations were a “piece of cake” compared with the multiparty talks that are likely to start after the general election next month, Lord O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary who coordinated the 2010 talks, has said.

The warning by O’Donnell came as Nick Clegg said the UK faced a stark choice between “a coalition of grievance” involving the Scottish National party or Ukip, or the politics of conscience and stability with the Liberal Democrats.

In remarks that are likely to be seized on by Downing Street, which is warning that the country faces a choice between the “competence” of the Tories or the “chaos” of other parties, O’Donnell said civil servants were preparing for a range of options. He also warned that the negotiations could take longer than the five days of May 2010 as he said the parties were already sending informal signals to each other.

“There is quite a lot of public foreplay,” O’Donnell told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. “We shall see what is consummated in the weeks ahead.”

O’Donnell – who told the Guardian last month that the polls at that stage suggested the only viable government would involve a deal between Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP – spoke out as Clegg used an interview with the Guardian to argue that the nation was realising that no major party can win the election outright and that a new coalition government was inevitable.

Speaking on the eve of the launch of the Lib Dem manifesto, the deputy prime minister said “the looming question in the next phase of this campaign is whether there is to be a coalition of grievance, or of conscience. The last thing the British economy needs is the instability and factionalism that those coalitions of grievance of right and left represents.”

O’Donnell said the range of options being prepared by civil servants included a minority government of one party or a coalition between one of the largest parties and a second party supported by a third party in a “supply and confidence” arrangement. This is an informal deal in which a party offers to support a budget “supply” and a Queen’s speech “confidence” in exchange for concessions.

He told Today: “What you are trying to do is to get to a stable, effective government. Where Sir Jeremy [Heywood, the cabinet secretary] will be getting to now is not so much thinking about what options there might be but for each option: how do we turn that into effective government? So they will be studying processes and tactics from the past. Remember, in the first half of the last century there were more minority and coalition governments than not. So there are quite a lot of precedents to go on.

“They will also be thinking about how do we manage government where you don’t want to go to the house too often with very contentious votes. So instead of legislation can you have other ways of doing things? We might have fewer laws – if they are fewer, better thought through, better legislated it could be be good. Sometimes instead of very heavy-handed regulation can we nudge people towards the right [outcome in a way] that doesn’t require legislation?”

David Laws, the Lib Dem education minister who chaired the party’s manifesto group, indicated that the Lib Dems would struggle to reach agreement in any coalition negotiations with the Tories on the EU. David Cameron has pledged to resign unless he is able to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership by the end of 2017.

Laws told Today: “We think to have some sort of British-inspired referendum on a random timetable determined by the Conservative party is not sensible. It would cast a blight over our economy.”

But Laws suggested that Tory demands for a referendum would not be a deal-breaker in coalition negotiations. “I’m not going to pick out of all the policies in our manifesto [one policy] because we don’t know yet even what the makeup of the next parliament is,” Laws said. “We are not talking the language of red lines.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nicholas Watt Chief political correspondent and Patrick Wintour Political editor, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 15th April 2015 09.52 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010