In Depth

Coronavirus coalition: does the UK need a cross-party government?

Senior Tories say a ‘Covid coalition’ may be ‘unavoidable’

Senior Conservatives are urging Boris Johnson to consider introducing an emergency national unity government to tackle the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

The call comes as the number of reported infections in the UK rises to more than 8,000, according to latest figures from real-time statistics website Worldometer.

What is a government of national unity?

A government of national unity is a broad coalition of MPs from various different parties as well as independents, who come together to form a new cabinet and government behind a prime minister.

This type of government is usually formed during a time of national emergency, such as war.

Who is calling for a unity government?

A number of Tory MPs have privately said that Johnson will need to introduce cross-party governing if emergency coronavirus measures continue for months.

In a public call for such a move, George Freeman, a former minister in the Tory government, told The Guardian that a “Covid coalition” government may be “unavoidable”.

“The scale of this national emergency – the suspension of usual freedoms and democracy, the economic consequences and the likely loss of tens of thousands of lives – demands a suspension of politics as usual,” Freeman said.

“When Labour have a sensible new leader, Keir Starmer [if elected] should be invited to Covid cabinet, Cobra and joint No. 10 briefings.”

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Why do Tories want a unity government?

Some Conservatives argue that the PM could benefit from sharing responsibility for the strict measures required to tackle the virus, and the potential economic and social fallout.

According to The Guardian, one unnamed Tory MP said the PM might want to “drag Labour in” so that the public do not associate the draconian measures - and the crisis overall - with a solely Conservative government, if the situation were to worsen. 

There are fears that Johnson could see public support for his measures dwindle if it appears that he alone is responsible for a coronavirus defence that sees the number of deaths reach the tens of thousands.

And a Tory insider told the newspaper that even if Johnson’s leadership during the crisis is seen favourably, the public may want to install another leader - such as Starmer - to rebuild public services afterwards.

Another Tory MP said Downing Street would be considering a cross-party coronavirus council if emergency measures continue, “as democratic consensus will be needed for a continued suspension of everyday life, especially if Parliament cannot sit”.

Parliament is shutting down for at least four weeks from Wednesday evening.

What do opposition figures make of the idea?

Labour leadership front-runner Starmer is said to be focusing on trying to put pressure on the government to introduce measures such as guaranteed income and stricter social distancing, rather than calling for a national unity government.

However, leadership rival Rebecca Long-Bailey is not ruling out cross-party cooperation or a government of national unity.

Meanwhile, fellow candidate Lisa Nandy has said that opposition figures, unions, business groups and others should form a “national Cobra” emergency committee rather than a unity government.

“Decisions are being made in real time,” she said. “Rather than having a reshuffle and trying to bed in a new government, what you really need is a decision-making body that essentially takes this over until it’s dealt with.

“There is absolutely no reason I can see why someone like Gordon Brown wouldn’t be in the meeting room, helping to steer us through this. He’s dealt with not just the global financial crash, but foot and mouth as well. We really do need to start drawing on a wider pool of expertise.”

Liberal Democrat leadership candidate Layla Moran agrees that rather than a national unity government, a better approach would be what she describes as a “formal arrangement of cross-party working, through joint Cobra and subject-specific committee meetings”.

Johnson’s government has allowed London Mayor Sadiq Khan into Cobra meetings in recent weeks, after initially failing to invite him to attend.

When has this happened before?

During the First World War, “a coalition formed first under Herbert Henry Asquith in 1915 and then David Lloyd George in 1916”, as Andrew Blick, a King’s College London lecturer in politics and history, explains in an article on The Conversation

And in 1931, Ramsay MacDonald clung to power by forming a coalition with the Conservatives and Liberals, as well as some members of his Labour party, under the banner of a national government.

Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill also ran a national unity government, between 1940 and 1945, with Labour’s Clement Attlee serving as deputy PM.

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