David Laws’s memoir of his time in government ends with everything in tatters: he has lost his seemingly safe seat, his party has gone from being a full partner in government to having the same number of MPs as the Democratic Unionists, his leader is shell-shocked and barely able to appear in public without breaking down. Clegg is not the only one: there are lots of tear-stained farewells as the Lib Dems shuffle off into obscurity, unable to comprehend the scale of the disaster that has overtaken them. Enoch Powell said every political career ends in failure but this was something worse: utter humiliation. Understandably, and with the benefit of a little hindsight, Laws wants to know whether it could have been avoided. What could they have done differently? He does an inventory of the various twists and turns of the preceding five years – the AV referendum, the tuition fees fiasco, sticking with Clegg regardless – and concludes that none of it made much difference. This was a calamity waiting to happen. He is probably right.
Only one choice really mattered: the decision to enter into full coalition with the Conservatives in the first place, rather than propping up a minority Tory administration from the safe distance of a confidence and supply agreement. Within months polling support for the Lib Dems had halved and it never recovered. They could have vetoed the tuition fee increase, they could have dumped Clegg for Cable, they could have done more on constitutional reform, and perhaps they might have saved a few seats round the edges. But once they had thrown in their lot with Cameron and Osborne, they were basically sunk. So for Laws the real question is this: was it worth it? He concludes that it was. His book is a defence of the difference the Lib Dems made during their time in government, reining the Tories in, promoting progressive policies, ensuring basic competence and keeping the lines of communication open. They were, he wants us to believe, more often than not the grown-ups in the room.
Before 2010, the Lib Dems had been known for a few things: winning by-elections, taking the moral high ground, successfully tailoring their message to harness the politics of protest. For Laws, this was never enough. ‘Political parties need power to put principles into action. Popularity without power is a pretty sterile and uninspiring long-term vision.’ To turn down a chance to govern would have been an admission that they weren’t up to it. As it happens, Laws thinks the Lib Dems proved to be a lot better at government than many people had feared, perhaps including himself. They were doers as well as grandstanders, hardworking, decent, pragmatic ministers. They were also less jaded than some of their Tory colleagues, by dint of not having been round the block too many times before. It is remarkable how perky and upbeat the Lib Dems in government still were in April 2015, despite the battering they had taken over the previous five years. Laws quotes Clegg addressing his private office after the final cabinet meeting before the launch of the election campaign:
I’m proud of what we have done in government. We are basically leaving the country in good order … God knows if we’ll be rewarded by the electorate, but I think we deserve to be. I’m not going to miss most of the Tories, but there are some that I really like and might stay in touch with – Osborne, funnily enough, in spite of our rows. David Cameron I guess – after all, we’ve been through a lot together. Oliver Letwin, with his decency and his wonderful professorial quality. Ken Clarke. Definitely Ken Clarke. He is truly brilliant … I am really looking forward to the election campaign. We have something important to say, and now I just want to get out there and say it.
It would be touching if it weren’t so laughable.
Clegg’s little speech begs the really big question: if the Lib Dems made such a success of coalition, why did people end up hating them for it? After all, it isn’t just that they weren’t rewarded by the electorate for being decent, hardworking and pragmatic – all the qualities that the voters are meant to value in a politician. It’s almost as if they were punished for it. Their very willingness to muck in is what turned people off. Why? Laws’s book avoids confronting this question but in a way it provides its own answer. The Lib Dems were trying too hard. Laws writes about government with the enthusiasm of an insider who wants the rest of us to know how much effort it took to keep the show on the road. It has all the toe-curling earnestness of a school magazine: not the spiky, score-settling Private Eye version, but a real one, full of tributes to the lovely people in the back office without whom none of this would have been possible, plus little inside jokes, gentle digs at troublesome colleagues and hints of titanic rows behind the scenes. Anyone who has worked in an office will recognise what Laws describes. It feels terribly important to the people involved. But we all know what happens when you try to describe the minutiae of your work life to outsiders: their eyes glaze over. Who cares?
What Laws is doing is polsplaining. He keeps insisting on the impact he and his colleagues were making in government. He lists the Lib Dems’ achievements month by month between 2010 and 2015 (‘October 2014: Nick Clegg announces new mental health access standards’). He even gives us the name of every Lib Dem special adviser over that period, like a list of winners on school prize day (there were fifty of them, nearly half of whom were in the office of the deputy prime minister). He quotes one of his colleagues, Jo Swinson, the MP for East Dunbartonshire, who spoke up in support of her beleaguered leader after he had survived a botched coup attempt in June 2014: ‘When we went into coalition, we all knew we were taking risks and that it wouldn’t be easy. But if I had the same chance again, I would do the same thing. We are making a difference in government. I know I am in [my own] department.’ That’s the problem: it was so much more visible and important-seeming on the inside than on the outside. What the Lib Dems were trying to do did matter and many of their achievements were real (‘March 2013: Nick Clegg vetoes Conservative plans to axe an extra £13 billion from public spending’). But it felt more important to them than it did to us. In an age when people are sick of the gap between what politicians care about and what the voters experience, this was a fatal mismatch.
Swinson lost her seat, as did all the Lib Dems in Scotland bar one. Perhaps the biggest victim was Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury and the other hero of Laws’s account, after Clegg and Laws himself (‘March 2014: David Laws announces fairer funding for English schools’). Alexander was ‘an outstanding minister and … a fully paid-up, adult member of the coalition government’, Laws writes. ‘His commitment to make the coalition government work for the people of our country was almost matchless.’ It did him no good, of course. Though he was telling colleagues right up to the end that he could cling onto his seat, he was ousted on a swing of more than 20 per cent to the SNP, losing by more than ten thousand votes. Even the Lib Dems’ attempts at cynicism didn’t save him. There were persistent rumours that Alexander had used his control of the purse strings to direct investment to vulnerable Lib Dem seats, including his own. Jonny Oates, Clegg’s chief of staff, teases him at their final supper before the election: ‘Your constituents will be mad if they do not re-elect you, Danny. And if they don’t, we should ask for all that money back that has been sprayed around your area – the extra ski lifts and the gold-lined roads.’ If the Lib Dems thought pork barrel politics could rescue them, they had totally misjudged the mood of the voters, who were no more inclined to accept gifts from their masters’ table than they were to accept lectures about how lucky they were to have them.
Meanwhile, some of the Tories Laws works with seem to inhabit a different universe. His boss at the Department of Education, Michael Gove, is portrayed in this book as a likeable ideologue, clever, fearless and frequently wrong. Laws quotes Cameron making excuses for Gove after one provocation too many: ‘Michael does seem to have gone a bit nuts recently.’ On another occasion, Cameron varies the message: ‘The thing you’ve got to remember with Michael is that he is basically a bit of a Maoist.’ Yet here we are in 2016 and the mad Maoist remains a dominant figure in British politics. It may be that he holds something of our collective future in his hands. Where are Clegg, Laws and Alexander? Laws tells us that Gove liked to rib him by describing Alexander as ‘Luke Skywalker to my Obi-Wan Kenobi’. Oh how we laughed! This is just one more detail that Laws might have done better to keep to himself.