22 Days In May, David Laws, ISBN 978-1-84954-080-3
This is David Laws’ account of the negotiations, with both the Labour and Conservative parties, that led to the present coalition government. Although it’s only one side of a story with multiple, doubtless very partisan, viewpoints, it’s an interesting insight into what was going on behind closed doors at the time.
The LD negotiating team had guessed the outcome of the election correctly: they expected that the Conservatives would be the largest party but not hold an overall majority. Given that scenario, their expectation was that the outcome would be a supply and confidence agreement rather than the arrangement that eventually emerged. Nevertheless they considered full coalition (with someone) to be a better outcome.
Following the election, in the earlier stages of negotiations with the Conservative party that continued to seem a likely result, indeed with an agreement to this effect drawn up at one point. Nobody seems to have thought it the best answer even at the time: on the Conservative side he quotes George Osborne as worrying that the result would be “death by a thousand defeats” as the LDs voted against the government on issues outside the agreement. It seems a realistic worry to me: the reaction to LD support for Conservatives policies in the months since the election has shown there would be enormous pressure on the LDs to vote against the government, in the absence of an agreement constraining them to do so. Moreover the eventual result would surely have been the Conservatives calling a fresh election, at the time of their choosing, in the hope of an absolute majority and the ability to implement their policies in full - it does not seem plausible that they would have tolerated limping on for five years.
As it turned out the negotiations with Labour went just well enough that the Conservatives were persuaded to raise their offer, resulting in the coalition agreement.
It seems there was a lot more negotiation with Labour going on than was apparent (at least to me!) at the time. From Laws’ point of view Labour negotiators seemed divided and in some cases distinctly lukewarm about cooperation: Lords Mandelson and Adonis, on the one hand, keen to put together a coalition but Harriet Harman and Eds Balls and Miliband less convinced. Somewhat remarkably Ed Balls apparently did not think that Labour could deliver on their own manifesto commitment to an AV referendum (manifesto page 9:2): “Look, even AV would not be at all straightforward. In fairness, the Chief Whip thinks it could be difficult to get the AV referendum through. Many of our colleagues are opposed to it. It cannot be guaranteed.” Mandelson comes across better, at one point sending a message “under the table” to an LD negotiator to try to improve the negotiating atmosphere, at that point somewhat in danger of going off the rails.
Laws also comments on the Labour team’s attempts to set up outside meetings between other members of the two parties, e.g. Darling and Cable. The LDs weren’t very keen on this, preferring to keep the negotiations within the negotiating team. It’s hard to see how - in effect - expanding the negotiating team to the entire cabinet and their LD opposites would have resulted in a coherent negotiation. However, while the LDs complained about this, Labour’s reaction doesn’t seem to be recorded. It would be interesting to know their side of this particular detail.
LD grandees such as Paddy Ashdown lobbied heavily in favour of a coalition with Labour. Gordon Brown was also plainly in favour, indeed resigning in order to meet the LDs’ terms for a coalition. But despite this, Labour’s offer was simply too weak, not least due to the deeply implausible electoral arithmetic (Labour and LD combined would still not have a majority and would have to involve several smaller parties, who weren’t even involved in the negotiations at this stage as far as I can see from anything in this book). Laws’ ultimate assessment is scathing: “It was clear that if we went into coalition with Labour, we would not be establishing a new government, we would be chaining ourselves to a decaying corpse.”
Again, it would be good to see a realistic analysis from one of the relevant Labour figures of how well the “rainbow coalition” plan would have worked in practice.
Laws also documents some of his very brief time in the cabinet, for instance his surprise at discovering that his department was spending £110,000 a year in order to have a chauffeur-driven Jaguar available to him at all times. Perhaps unsurprisingly he soon finds himself being sold “the virtues of the government car service in every way imaginable”. The initial £6 billion in cuts promised by the coalition proved easy to find (Laws was Chief Secretary to the Treasury), with some of the negotiations surprisingly informal: “Was it 325? Well, OK, that’s fine by me” says Ken Clarke.
Unfortunately for Laws, the details of his expenses arrangements brought an early end to his ministerial career. The description on Wikipedia makes the whole thing seem a frankly rather strange unforced error, and you might think that this book would have been a good place to make some sense of it, but it’s not an opportunity he takes.
In summary, an interesting look at how the coalition arose, that highlights the need for a comparable volume from one of the Labour negotiators.
(5 Days To Power looks like the Conservative equivalent, but I’ve not read it.)