Look…

David Runciman

  • Buy22 Days in May: The Birth of the Lib Dem-Conservative Coalition by David Laws
    Biteback, 335 pp, £9.99, November 2010, ISBN 978 1 84954 080 3

In a hung parliament, should the MPs who hold the balance of power side with the party that came first in the election, or the party that came second? The reason for going with the winners is democratic propriety – they can claim more of a mandate – plus a desire to avoid the embarrassment of being seen to prop up a coalition of losers. The reason for going with the losers is that they need more propping up, so it should be possible to screw bigger concessions from them. The more tenuous the coalition, the greater the opportunities for extortion. Propriety and embarrassment v. power and blackmail – which is it to be? Well, this is politics, so which do you think.

Certainly that’s how it turned out after this year’s general election in Australia. That resulted, as over here, in a hung parliament, the first for more than 70 years. As here, the incumbent Labour Party lost the vote by most meaningful measurements (they ended up with the same number of seats as their conservative rivals, and under Australia’s version of the AV system a considerably smaller share of first preferences). The three independent MPs who found themselves kingmakers all came from rural constituencies, whose electors appeared much happier with the idea of a centre-right government than a centre-left one. But that did not stop two of the three from throwing in their lot with Labour, allowing the seemingly humiliated Julia Gillard to remain as prime minister. The rationale was straightforward: they were able to get more out of her, in the form of money, jobs and all the other little titbits of power that a government has at its disposal. They also believed that her relative weakness made her a more trustworthy partner: she was less likely to cut and run, because she had much more reason to be frightened of the voters. And luckily, being politicians (and Australians), they seem to have been unembarrassable.

Yet that’s not how it worked over here. David Laws’s 22 Days in May, which recounts the negotiations that preceded the formation of the coalition government from the inside, explains how it happened that in our case the winners actually ended up winning. Hardly surprisingly, it’s not that Lib Dem politicians emerge as more squeamish or concerned with propriety than other kinds. It’s that what matters in the end is not who won or lost, but who has got most to lose. In Australia, Labour had only been in power for three years, and in a fit of panic had just dumped an unpopular PM (Kevin Rudd) for what they hoped was a more voter-friendly one. Julia Gillard called an election after only three weeks in office. Had she been unable to cling on she would have been one of the shortest-lived prime ministers in Australian history. She and her party positively reeked of desperation. Britain’s Labour Party, which had spurned at least three opportunities to replace Gordon Brown with someone more palatable, smelled of exhaustion.

Laws describes the various meetings that took place in the days following the election between the Lib Dem negotiating team and its Labour counterparts, to see if they could thrash out a deal. On the Labour side, Laws’s old friend (and a former Liberal Democrat) Andrew Adonis was still keen to explore the options but the rest of them just didn’t seem that interested. Peter Mandelson was detached (‘Surely the rich have suffered enough,’ he says at one point, when Laws tries to find some common ground on progressive taxation), Harriet Harman was distracted, Ed Balls was truculent. Worst of all was Ed Miliband, portrayed here as someone who seemed to think that the Labour Party should be above this sort of thing. 22 Days in May is a highly partisan account from an ardent supporter (and briefly a member) of the coalition government. Still, if it’s even half-true, it’s enough to send a chill through anyone who thought that Ed Miliband was leadership material. He comes across as whiny and complacent, entirely preoccupied with Labour’s internal affairs and his own place within them. By comparison, Ed Balls, who has acquired a reputation as the wrecker of these discussions, is simply a grumpy realist with no appetite for something he doesn’t think he can sell.

Another stumbling block to a deal was the fact that Labour, though defeated, had done better than expected. An election that could have been a rout turned out to be more of an orderly retreat. In Australia, by contrast, it was the conservative opposition that outperformed expectations, which left them reluctant to make too many concessions – they wanted their reward for having done so well. In Britain, the Tories did worse than had seemed likely for months beforehand. Laws reveals his Conservative negotiating partners as somewhat chastened by not having won outright, whereas many in Labour were simply relieved to be there at all. Chastened is what you want in a coalition partner, though of course, once the coalition is up and running, that mood is unlikely to last for long.

In reality, the Lib Dems were in a deeply unenviable position. They too had underperformed after all the talk of a breakthrough during the campaign. They held the balance of power but not enough seats to hold either of the other parties to ransom. The Tories were close enough to an overall majority to contemplate a minority government, though it was clear they preferred a coalition. Labour and the Lib Dems did not have enough seats between them to govern without support from the Nationalists, which gave everyone pause. As Laws reminds his colleagues, the choices arrayed before them ranged from ‘the unpalatable to the disastrous’. Still, he consoles himself with a line from Sherlock Holmes: once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. In the end, a deal with Labour was impossible. Propping up a minority Conservative administration was also out of the question, since it would have meant taking the blame if things went wrong (including the blame if there had to be another election), but getting none of the credit if they went right. So a full coalition with the Tories was what it had to be.

It’s easy enough to see why a deal with Labour was unattractive. But why was it impossible? One of the reasons insisted on here was that Labour couldn’t deliver on electoral reform. This doesn’t mean that Labour couldn’t promise a referendum on a different voting system (they clearly could), or even that they couldn’t support the change itself (they might). The problem was that a rainbow coalition between the Lib Dems, Labour, the Greens and the Nationalists was likely to be so rickety that it would put the voters off coalitions entirely. Support PR and get more governments like this one was a dangerous slogan if the government in question was a mess. Yet a coalition with the Tories poses equivalent dangers that Laws does not discuss. If it goes badly, the same problem arises. But if it goes well, the Tories, whose commitment to reform is lukewarm at best, might feel emboldened to undermine it. The real nightmare for the Lib Dems is that the only way they could promote a different voting system was by forming a government under the current system, which is designed to make third parties look foolish. The Lib Dems currently look pretty foolish. And victory in a referendum on even so modest a reform as AV looks a long way off.

A second explanation that Laws pushes relentlessly for ruling out a Lib-Lab coalition was that the markets wouldn’t stand for it. Labour’s dithering over deficit reduction meant that every day they remained in office brought the country closer to a Greek-style collapse. During the negotiations, we are told that Mervyn King stood ready in the wings waiting to brief the Lib Dems on the nation’s finances. Laws says that this offer was refused, on the grounds that they ‘didn’t want to feel bounced on economic policy by what anyone else might say’. But the strong impression one gets is that they didn’t need to be bounced, since they had already bought into the idea that only a swift dose of fiscal rectitude could see off the speculators. This is dressed up by Laws as simply facing up to the facts. But really it’s an extraordinary admission of political weakness. It meant, first, that the Lib Dems were already signed up to the Tory position on the economy before negotiations had begun. And second, that they had discounted their ability to inject any fiscal rectitude into a government in which they and Labour might be partners. So, no need to control the Tories and no chance of controlling Labour. That’s not much of a bargaining position.

Is it true that without George Osborne in the Treasury we would now be in the hands of the IMF, as Osborne himself insists? We’ll never know, though the fact that Osborne insists on it is no reason for anyone else to believe it. No doubt a coalition of the losers would have been a difficult and precarious undertaking, and it might well have ended in tears. Yet it is striking that a Lib-Lab alliance was still the preferred option of many Liberal Democrats, including all the former leaders (Steel, Ashdown, Kennedy, Campbell), a number of backbenchers (particularly those in university seats) and plenty of ordinary members. It wasn’t that it couldn’t be done. It’s just that the present Lib Dem leadership couldn’t stomach it. Apart from anything else, it would have meant having to deal, however briefly, with Gordon Brown, a man it is clear that none of them could abide. Brown himself was certainly desperate and needy enough, and Laws paints him as willing to do almost anything to cling to office. But no one was prepared to take him seriously. They all (with the possible exception of Vince Cable, who wasn’t part of the negotiations) appear to have disliked and distrusted Brown as ardently as any Blairite. It was this, as much as anything, that drove them into the arms of David Cameron.

In fact, 22 Days in May is a testament to the continuing hold of Blairism on British politics. Laws states unequivocally that Labour and the Lib Dems could have come together at any time during Blair’s years in office, and there is a strong undercurrent of regret that Tony wasn’t around to make things easier for them in 2010 (Ashdown tries to get Blair involved from the Middle East, but to no avail). In his absence, working with Tory Blairites like Cameron and Michael Gove seemed a safer bet than with a Labour Party in which the Blairites like Adonis and Mandelson were on the way out, and Miliband Minor and Balls were taking over. During the negotiations, Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne, Danny Alexander and Laws, the core of the Lib Dem team that signed up with the Tories, behaved like good Blairites, a vanguard out of step with the wider party but resolved on power, and confident that when power was achieved the party’s gratitude would outweigh its disgust at what had to be given up to get there. They even talk like the man himself. Laws reconstructs conversations at which he was present, and everyone speaks with Blair’s characteristic verbal tic, beginning their sentences ‘Look…’ ‘Look…’ says Nick Clegg. ‘Look…’ says Chris Huhne. ‘Look …’ says David Laws.

If you listen out for it, this tic has become a new divide in British public life: between the people who say ‘Look…’ and the people who say ‘So…’ ‘Look…’ is a badge of conviction, and it’s meant to signal sincerity, respect for the other point of view but a determination to do the right thing. ‘So…’ is mandarin-speak – it’s said to be a characteristic of almost everyone who works at the Bank of England – and it signals a resigned acceptance of the facts, whatever your personal preferences might be. Most academics, in my experience, now begin their seminar answers: ‘So…’ When my wife and I talk to our children, I notice that we tend to say: ‘So…’ But Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are determined to be ‘Look…’ people. Hence, the surface message of this book: ‘Look, it had to be the Tories.’ But Laws, unlike some of his colleagues, also has his mandarin side. And under the surface, another message occasionally peeps through: ‘So, this can’t come out well.’