Would the United Kingdom or Ireland Embrace a National Unity Government Amid the Covid-19 Crisis?

Contributor: Heather A. Conley

Unity or ‘national’ governments—when main opposition parties are brought into government and their leaders are usually given senior government roles--have a much-respected history in times of great crisis or existential threat. Perhaps the most famous unity government was led by Winston Churchill from 1940 to 1945. Churchill made Labour leader Clement Attlee his deputy prime minister, with the dominant role over domestic policy, allowing Churchill to concentrate on the war effort. Britain also had a national government during the First World War, and almost had one during the financial crisis a decade ago: prime minister Gordon Brown invited opposition figures into cabinet, but they declined, fearing the bargain on offer was not worth it.

Faced with a pandemic, a rising death toll, and growing political headwinds about the current government’s management of the public health crisis, could the United Kingdom be about to have another national government? Could the election of Sir Keir Starmer as Labour leader on Saturday, replacing the electorally disastrous Jeremy Corbyn, make this a possibility? Although unlikely, the dynamics are worth contemplating.

Unlike his predecessor, Starmer is highly credible and, in contrast to current prime minister Boris Johnson’s improvisational style, comes off as a sincere and serious person. The 57-year old Starmer rose to be Director of Public Prosecutions—one of the most senior apolitical appointments in the UK system, similar to the role of U.S. attorney general—and is widely credited with performing very competently in that role before seeking elected office for the first time in 2015. Starmer led Labour’s response to Brexit, often outshining Corbyn from that subordinate position. As a more centrist figure—and with a comfortable majority in the leadership vote (56.2%)—he will seek to unify his party, which has been deeply divided by its movement to the left under Corbyn.

So, would prime minister Johnson contemplate inviting Starmer to be his deputy prime minister? And, if he did, would Starmer accept?

Boris Johnson’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis is now being criticized loudly by once-loyal newspapers, and whispers in Westminster are questioning whether the relatively new prime minister can effectively manage the crisis. As is the case with leaders in many other countries, UK public support for the government has gone up, with positive net approval ratings for the first time in a decade. However, this effect appears to be fading quickly. Bringing Starmer into government could help Johnson depoliticize the government’s crisis management and neuter the threat from the new Leader of the Opposition. Yet by taking this step, the government would acknowledge it is in serious trouble and panic the markets further or question Johnson’s health (he has tested positive for the coronavirus and has exhibited symptoms).

In the unlikely event Johnson offers Starmer the deputy position, the latter is equally unlikely to accept. He would prefer to concentrate on the Labour Party’s renewal and not to share responsibility for a government that has stumbled in its initial response to the pandemic. It is also likely Starmer would be offered the deputy prime minister position only for a few months, which would not allow him to achieve much and it would forever taint him by association, providing little credit for any potential governmental success.

The United Kingdom is not alone in its contemplation of a national unity government. Ireland is for the first time attempting to negotiate such a format after the February 8 election resulted in something of a three-way tie between two center-right parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, and the nationalist-left Sinn Fein. Eight weeks after the election, talks have failed to result in a majority government or coalition of any kind. The rising public health crisis is increasing calls for government formation to conclude but both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have a deep-rooted antipathy to sharing power with Sinn Fein because of the latter’s past association with the Irish Republican Army terrorist group. While the Greens have called for weeks for a national unity government with rotating leadership, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael will instead attempt to form a grand coalition that other parties can join if their membership permits it (they will need at least one more party for a majority). Indeed, the current Taoiseach (prime minister) and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, who has also experienced an increase in popularity due to his handling of the pandemic, has suggested a unity government of sorts involving every party and independent members of parliament, with the exception of Sinn Fein.

Though outside of Europe, there is increasing support for unity governments (e.g., Israel, Pakistan, India), it appears that even in the most difficult times, some political forces are simply unwilling—or at the very least, unlikely—to unify. For now, the crisis would have to worsen quite a bit for Ireland or the United Kingdom to experience such a political union.

Donatienne Ruy
Director, Executive Education and Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy, and Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program