The tense, uncertain days that followed the British general election in May 2010 seem like a while ago now. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, quite a novelty at first, has become so entrenched in our minds that the previous Labour administration seems to represent a different zeitgeist entirely, where the word ‘austerity’ was not even part of the political lexicon. Gordon Brown seems like ancient history, despite remaining as an MP.
One common refrain on the part of the leaders of the Coalition, in particular the Chancellor, George Osborne, is that the policies enacted have been necessary and inevitable. Indeed, the TINA argument – “there is no alternative” – is the foundation to the government’s ‘deficit-cutting’ programme. This is highly disingenuous.
But with time, it is not just the policies of the coalition, but the coalition itself that has been made to seem inevitable. With hindsight, it has been made to seem as though the only governing coalition possible was between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, given that this combination was the only grouping that could command a majority in the House of Commons, let alone ‘rescue’ Britain.
According to Andrew Adonis, this account is not accurate. A number of accounts have been written about the formation of the coalition, including first-hand records by David Laws MP, a key player in the Lib Dems’ negotiating team, and Rob Wilson MP, a Conservative. A BBC documentary was even broadcast soon after the event, with many of the key players interviewed. Lord Adonis’ account provides the perspective of a senior Labour negotiator, revealing Labour’s perspective of the behind-the-scenes machinations and tactical gambits that went on in those five days.
Lord Adonis rejects the now-conventional wisdom that a Labour-Lib Dem coalition ‘would not have worked anyway’. The most common explanation for this is that “the numbers” didn’t add up: Labour and the Lib Dems by themselves would not have commanded a majority in the Commons. But Lord Adonis points out – and reveals that the Labour camp had calculated – that along with the minor parties, and taking into account that various seats are non-voting (such as the Speaker and Sinn Fein members), a Labour-Lib Dem coalition could have commanded a majority in major votes (including the Queen’s Speech) of above 20. Some feared that the Scottish nationalists would have driven a hard bargain at each vote, but Gordon Brown pointed out that they would have been “killed” by their voters if they were seen to support the Tories. Indeed, in negotiations, these points were pressed on Nick Clegg by Brown, and Lord Adonis suggests that the Lib Dem leader accepted this.
Whether or not he did though, Adonis suggests it didn’t really matter. The Lib Dems negotiators had already made up their minds.
There were a number of stumbling blocks in the negotiations between the two parties, and gauging which was the most troublesome depends on whose account is read. If “the numbers” really weren’t an obstacle, then the remaining problems include personality clashes and policy differences. Despite Nick Clegg’s claim, almost at the last moment that “there really isn’t a policy issue between us”, in the end, Lord Adonis suggests that economic policy was the crucial difference that prevented a Lib-Lab coalition.
The Lib Dems had flummoxed the Labour negotiators in their initial and later meetings by calling for expedited public spending cuts, which appeared to contradict their claims during the general election campaign. Lord Adonis suggests that at first the Labour team felt that this was a tactical ruse, and could be defused, but it quickly became the sticking point. Moreover, according to this account, the Lib Dems pulled the plug on a proposed meeting between Vince Cable and Alastair Darling, the two sides’ economic spokesmen, to set out a joint economic policy position. Adonis does imply that Cable’s stock had fallen and may not have been in Clegg’s inner circle, which partly explained the reluctance to sanction this meeting. But more importantly, he suggests that this indicates that the policy difference here was insurmountable; Nick Clegg and, in particular, David Laws, were ideologically inclined towards Osborne’s economic vision. Laws even admits in his book that Osborne had attempted to persuade him to defect to the Conservatives in exchange for a promised Cabinet seat in a Conservative government – an indication of the ideological alignment. In addition, Adonis cites Andrew Duff, a Lib Dem MEP who claims that
“If the Conservative Party had been how it used to be under Edward Heath, Nick [Clegg] would be a Tory, albeit a natural liberal, pro-European Tory like Chris Patten and Ken Clarke.”
There are admittedly not many Conservative MPs in that mould nowadays, but the comment is telling.
Once the economic platform had been agreed with the Conservatives – plus, of course, a promised referendum on AV – Labour had nothing else to offer. Labour was merely a tool, brought into play to force the Conservatives to offer more.
For Adonis, the decision to form the coalition with Cameron hangs on this issue:
Why did Clegg turn Right? Because, on the big economic questions, he is on the Right, not the Left; and so too is David Laws, his chief strategist.
Gordon Brown’s offer of a Lib-Lab coalition that would be “pro-Europe, pro-Keynesian, pro-industrial policy, pro-fairness” just didn’t appeal where it mattered. The talks between the progressive parties of British politics were not about progressiveness at all. They were both a way of pacifying the Lib Dem left – who would have been outraged if a deal was struck with the Conservatives without any consideration of an alternative – and a way of forcing Cameron to offer more to clinch a deal.
In order to give the impression that the swingeing, reactionary option was the only possible one, the Lib Dems played a shrewd game with Labour, exploiting their well-publicised personality differences. Gordon Brown did not get on with Nick Clegg as well as David Cameron did. Moreover, it was briefed that members of the Labour negotiating team (especially the pugnacious Ed Balls) did not have as harmonious discussions with their Lib Dem counterparts as did the Conservatives.
Lord Adonis’ account questions the veracity of both, and in particular, doubts whether this really was a stumbling block or simply used an excuse to cement a foregone conclusion. Gordon Brown’s position was clearly a thorny topic, and not immediately discussed, but as it became clearer that many believed the legitimacy of a Lib-Lab government would be suspect if Brown remained in No. 10 after the drubbing election results, he offered to set in motion a leadership contest so that a new leader could be chosen in due course. Brown did believe that he should head the prospective coalition in the short-term, however, in order to reassure markets and avert a crisis. Whether even this was too much for Clegg, though, remains uncertain. In a discussion that Lord Adonis had with Paddy Ashdown, he suggests that the Lib Dem peer informed him that Gordon’s position was the only remaining hurdle. Whether he thinks Lord Ashdown was duped also, or just playing the Lib Dems sly game, Adonis does not make clear.
Furthermore, the tone of discussions between the leaders was never as “disastrous” as was often briefed, according to this account. The first conversation between the two leaders may have been “rather like an uncle congratulating a nephew on good exam results” – a bit awkward and patronising perhaps, but not hostile. Indeed, they seem to have occasionally become quite amicable:
As they chatted about their backgrounds and what had brought them into politics, Nick Clegg remarked: ‘I wish we’d had the chance to get to know each other better before.’
But the dishonestly negative briefings about how discussions had gone, according to Lord Adonis, became a frequent tactic of the Lib Dems. Whether this was a tactic to push the Lib Dem rank and file into believing that a deal with the Conservatives was the only viable option, or whether it was intended to force Labour to grovel and offer more, the Labour team were unsure at the time. They seem sure now.
The Coalition and beyond
5 Days in May is divided into two parts. One, which narrates the events of those heady five days, will be a useful document for historians of British politics. It provides a detailed primary account of Gordon Brown’s very last days in office, when everything was uncertain and British politics entered largely unfamiliar terrain for its practitioners. Usually, a general election leads to an overnight change of government, and so how to respond to a hung parliament was not something British politicians had dealt with. Constitutional experts, such as Vernon Bogdanor and Robert Hazell, had offered advice on how to respond to such an outcome, but those five days remain unique. A comprehensive account from a Labour insider was missing, and Lord Adonis’ book fills this gap. Indeed, the book was written in the few days that followed, and so captures the details and feelings clearly.
As Adonis took up a position at the Institute for Government after the election, however, he did not immediately publish it; the think-tank is non-partisan and so it would not have been appropriate. But upon returning to the Labour Party, this obstacle to publication was removed. Adonis added his thoughts on the coalition to date, and on how a progressive future is possible. This forms the second part, appended to the account of those five days. It is quietly, sharply critical of the coalition, and in particular of the way the Lib Dems have played their hand. He points out that relations with Europe have deteriorated, Clegg’s main fear about joining the Conservatives, and that hopes of constitutional reform have perished. Moreover, he argues that Clegg made a big mistake in failing to gain control of a major department, especially for himself, as, for example, the second party usually manages in a German coalition: “The absence of ministerial clout has rendered the Lib Dems largely unconnected and irrelevant to most of Whitehall”. Tim Bale, a Professor of British Politics, foresaw this as early as 2011, although he pessimistically expected a coalition collapse. By simply choosing to become Deputy Prime Minister, Clegg overestimated the influence of that office. John Nance Garner’s description of the US Vice-Presidency could perhaps apply to this office too.
This part of the book can therefore be read in two ways. It is either – and is explicitly – a call for a single “One Nation” Labour Party victory at the next election as the best chance of a progressive future for Britain. Or it is an offer to the Lib Dems of what they would be promised by Labour in the event of a similarly balanced hung parliament in 2015: much more say in shaping a progressive future for Britain.
That comes with an assumption, of course: that the Lib Dems are, indeed, genuine about wanting to shape a progressive future. Going by Adonis’ detailed, insightful, slightly chilling account, however, Labour negotiators will be more pessimistic about that next time.