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In the thick of it - a review of '5 days in May: the Coalition and beyond'

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Andrew Adonis’s insider account of the Lab-Lib coalition talks provides a vivid and vital, and often surprising, insight into the crucial politics of the day – and is also particularly relevant to the prospects for both parties after the 2015 general election.

Stuart Weir
11 June 2013

5 Days in May: The Coalition and Beyond, by Andrew Adonis, Biteback, £12.95

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Given their diminished share of the national vote and the closeness of their position in the opinion polls, the odds are that the Tories and Labour will find themselves short of an overall majority in another hung parliament. Both parties  – and the Lib Dems - must already be preparing their policies with the prospect of entering into coalition in  2015.

Andrew Adonis was in the thick of it as one of Labour’s team for the desperate party negotiations in May 2010 and he has written a vivid and angry account of the crucial five days, topped off with reflections on the experience. His account is openly partisan, but is, I think, more honest and so more credible than David Laws’ version of events last year as he doesn’t seek to justify his or Labour’s conduct; indeed, his criticisms of his own party ought to serve as a foundation for its preparations for 2015.

Adonis is angry about the “perfidy” of Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems, and angrier still I suspect with his own party, the interventions of the knuckle-headed big beasts, John Reid and David Blunkett, and even Tony Blair’s, and the general blight of defeatism in the party. He says: “Labour should have fought with every sinew in 2010 to retain power. To give up power voluntarily, because you are tired of government and it is all too difficult, is a betrayal of the people you serve. In politics, exhaustion and attrition need to be overcome, not indulged.”

Disraeli’s statement, “England does not love coalitions”, is irrelevant nowadays in the modern UK and utterly misunderstood, but our political class certainly doesn’t and hasn’t come to terms with the nature and increasing likelihood of coalitions. The conditions within which the negotiations took place in 2010 were the worst possible for considered judgment, as they were simply too rushed on both sides. Labour were unprepared for the opportunity of forming a coalition with the Lib Dems and didn’t at first realise that the parliamentary arithmetic worked. Clegg and his party committed a series of blunders which meant that they entered into government with the Tories but not into power.

Adonis describes the period of negotiations driven by the 24-hour media’s expectations of a swift resolution, even faster than the five days that it actually took, within a political culture which abhorred any temporary vacuum of power. This frantic timetable, driven also by the sense on the part of both the Tories and Labour that they were in a race to win, amounted to a mere fraction of the time that parties on the continent devote to coalition negotiations, and they prepare for them in advance.

Then there was the question of “human endurance”.  “The drama of negotiations started within hours of election night when no one had got much sleep, and was expected to continue non-stop until there was an outcome, exhaustion bred exhaustion. For those of us in the thick of it, the nights barely existed,” Adonis says. From Labour’s perspective, “there was an escalating sense of No. 10 under siege” - growing swarms of jostling cameras and journalists; the din of media helicopters overhead; secret meetings day and night; ceaseless plotting and planning and consulting party and trade union leaders; packs of TV cameras swarming back and forth across Westminster and Whitehall; and major constitutional reforms and political issues tossed across negotiating tables. Not to mention an intensifying Euro crisis and EU meetings for Brown and his ministers.

Clegg, of course, chose coalition with Cameron and Osborne rather than with Gordon Brown and Labour. And entered talks with them immediately, having enunciated in advance of the general election the novel constitutional dictum that the party “with the most seats and the most votes” should have the right to seek to govern. Adonis argues that it would have been entirely proper for Clegg to have turned to the second largest party, and the one that was closer to his party – especially given that on economic policy, the key issue in the election, the electorate had decisively rejected Osborne’s policies and his own party had fought the election “squarely on the Darling plan” and in opposition to Osborne’s prescriptions. This course would have been fully within accepted constitutional practice across Europe in contrast to Clegg’s piece of formal nonsense that suited his intentions rather than following constitutional propriety. 

Clegg and his principal lieutenant, David Laws, merely played Labour along until they had secured the big concession that they wanted from Cameron – a referendum on AV – and then dumped them. They were both economic liberals who believed in the ideal of the small state and that the “social-democratic experiment” had failed.  They did not take their party into coalition in spite of Osborne’s drastic austerity plans but because of them! At the same time, the talks with Labour should start but appear to fail, to convince their own members that a Lab-Lib coalition couldn’t work. Hence the constant briefings against Brown and Labour’s “body language”. Class came into it too. They shared a common background with Cameron and Osborne – in wealth, education, outlook, privilege.

David Cameron and Gordon Brown, says Adonis, “grasped the reality of power best.” This is plainly the case with Cameron. His “big, open and comprehensive” offer to the Lib Dems was a masterstroke – “a thunderbolt” for Labour, says Adonis, as it gave the Tories the initiative in the race to form a coalition. As he says, Cameron knew that once he had the keys to No. 10, “his room for manoeuvre and his power of initiative would be massively enhanced.” As it has proved. He was greatly assisted by Clegg’s foolishness in not taking a major post in the administration (as is continental practice); in ceding the majority of major posts to the Tories; in prioritising the AV referendum and House of Lords reform above policy areas of importance to the public.  

There is anyway, I believe, an inherent obstacle to genuine coalition in the British system, in that individual ministers as well as governments enjoy near unrestrained executive power anyway; and Duncan Smith, Gove, Hague, Hammond and Lansley/Hunt have dominated in the departments which really count and carried out Tory policies. The Prime Minister has forged ahead with Eurosceptic initiatives. But as Adonis observes, “It is hard to conceive that the Lib Dems could have negotiated a worse allocation of ministerial posts.”

But Cameron and Brown? Yes indeed, Brown emerges as a heroic figure in this story, at least as told by Adonis. He began Labour’s campaign to stay in the race with a responsible announcement re-stating Cabinet Office guidelines, clearing the way for him to remain Prime Minister while inter-party negotiations could  take place until a conclusion was reached which he could recommend to the Queen. He drove Labour’s campaign to win a place in the negotiations and never gave up. Critically, at the very beginning, he de-constructed the arithmetic of the party position in the House of Commons to expose the fallacy that only a “rainbow alliance” of virtually everyone besides the Tories could keep Cameron out, demonstrating instead that a Lab-Lib coalition could on their own form a viable government without any need for deals, shabby or otherwise. In doing so, he knocked out the first main prop of the Lib Dems’ alibi for choosing the Tories – namely, that the figures for a Lab-Lib deal just didn’t stack up. His premise was that virtually all the 29 minor party MPs would either support Labour or abstain on confidence and other critical votes; an insight that still stands for the aftermath of an election in 2015.

Yet Brown failed to appreciate until very late on that he himself was a huge obstacle to coalition, such was his reputation, the power of the “legitimacy” argument (i.e. he had been rejected by the electorate and could hardly be reincarnated at the head of a coalition) and also the very vigour with which he sought to persuade Clegg that a Lab-Lib coalition was a “historic opportunity” for the two progressive parties and predicted that the Tory-Lib coalition would divide over Europe. You can almost feel Clegg shrinking as he pressed the case. Brown’s colleagues also shrank from stating the obvious to him; his position, says Adonis, was the elephant in the room. His determination to remain Prime Minister was unaltered to the very end when he finally agreed to stand down shortly after a Lab-Lib coalition was in place; but until that moment, as Adonis says, “He didn’t only want to form a Lab-Lib coalition; he wanted to lead it”. Constitutionally, he had to remain Prime Minister to safeguard the possible accession of the Lab-Lib coalition; otherwise the Queen would have been obliged to turn to Cameron first, as leader of the largest party. But he could have untied the Gordian knot (not my pun) from the beginning by resigning as Labour Party leader in time to reassure Clegg.

In 5 Days in May, Adonis has written a classic new text of political journalism, managing through his close focus on the participants and day-to-day twists and turns to transform a familiar story into a thriller. With his SDP background and liberal politics, Adonis was a true believer in the idea of a progressive alliance between Labour and the Lib Dems. He has now disavowed his previous position and presents himself as a born-again apostle of single-party government, possibly out of loyalty (he is one of Ed Miliband’s advisers), but equally possibly out of sheer frustration and disillusionment with a party now in the hands of economic liberals – and incompetents. They are equally responsible for the disastrous, unequal and ineffective austerity policies that the coalition has pursued with the Tories. They have been badly bruised over the EU, their core policy concern; they lost the AV referendum which counted for too much in their calculations and (in my view) deserved to fail.

Adonis says:  “I believed at the time – and I still believe – that a Lab-Lib coalition was viable in May 2010 and that Labour could well have won the subsequent election”. I am doubtful about the second half of this proposition - and about Labour’s electoral prospects in 2015. The current state of the two main parties and electoral trends point to another inconclusive result; and Labour will not then be able to avoid the potential choice between minority government/opposition and coalition. Who knows how lasting the Lib Dems’ renunciation of social democracy will prove to be, how deep it runs in the party as a whole, which way they will jump after 2015? But at least it is most likely that the prospect of a viable Lab-Lib coalition will still be there for both parties and Miliband should take Adonis’s advice and prepare properly for a hung parliament and talks.

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