openDemocracyUK

Who was double-dealing whom after the election?

A BBC documentary on the creation of the UK's Coalition poses some interesting questions about what happened.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
29 July 2010

Nick Robinson's one hour BBC documentary on the creation of the Coalition was fascinating but disappointing, perhaps reflecting the process itself. It missed out the shaping pre-history that decided what happened.

I remember the moment I knew that there was not going to be a Labour-Lib Dem coalition. It turns out, oddly, that it was the moment a lot of the players convinced themselves it actually could happen: Gordon Brown's announcement that he would resign.... er, in a couple of months. Admittedly I wanted him to go. But so did the voters. He had lost. But, much more, he had lost at least two golden opportunities to make a deal with the Lib Dems: when he came to office in 2007 and after the expenses crisis broke in 2009. On both occasions he could have forged an agreement, a pact, or a coalition, based on an AV referendum. Now, after three days of trying to hold on despite the verdict of the voters, he proposed that he would oversee the establishment of an agreement for political reform and economic recovery and then resign! It was absurd.

Andrew 'Lord' Adonis states that it was the Lib Dems who took the decision to join the Tories and accuses them of making up "alibis" to evade responsibility. This is disingenuous. First of all, it was Cameron who decided that he wanted a deal, prepared for it and acted to make it happen. This was much the most original, game-changing move, as the programme reports. Second, Labour had not decided that it wanted a deal. It had not thought about how for its part it would need to change in order to create a coalition. Ed Balls sniggered in a repellent way at the fact that the Labour team, having swamped the Lib Dem leaders with demands and entreaties to talk with them and not get into bed with the Tories, had nothing at all prepared when they met.

But for months the possibility and even likelihood of a hung parliament was being debated by everyone, not least as the best outcome Labour could hope for. By not preparing for this, Adonis and his colleagues took the Lib Dems for granted, treated them with contempt while chatting them up and stringing them along.

What should have happened the moment the results came in, but this would also have needed some pre-planning, was for Brown to announce he would resign immediately. A new administration likely to command a parliamentary majority could be formed. Alan Johnson, a genuine proponent of PR, should have been put in charge of the negotiations as the future Prime Minister (with Harriet being stand-in Party leader) for an agreement to hold a second election in 18 months time after a referendum on the voting system with all options on offer but MPs free to advocate their preference.

The joker, however, was the economic crisis with the civil service working for cuts and 'economic stability'. In his facebook page, Gerry Hassan comments

Gus O'Donnell is the acting Cabinet Secretary talking about what he did as Cabinet Secretary. That is breaking new ground compared to the civil service conventions up to now. Am not sure existing civil servants should be media commentators about what they did and didn't do!

I think I agree with Hugh Kerr's response, that at least it is in the open. This is not the secret "deep state" at work; it is the permanent apparatus openly describing their role and intentions (and, indeed, success). Well, at least we know who rules.

But one passage in Robinson's report struck me as very important. Clegg states that he had privately decided some months before that there had to be immediate cuts as the Tories advocated. What isn't clear is whether he had also decided that this would be a condition for any deal with either party. If it was, this does change things. It surely means he was being dishonest with his own party as well as the electorate by appealing for voters to support him on terms he knew he would actively seek to reverse if he had the chance. This is more important than his account of his change of mind covered in Liberal Conspiracy. There is a hilarious attempt to get round what it seems he did by Peter Hoskin in the Spectator who asks if a party leader is obliged to "agree to every aspect of his party's policy"! The answer is no, but this is not what was at stake. Any politician's honesty is in trouble if they advocate something when they intend themselves to set about doing the opposite. This is not a matter of "agreeing" personally with every jot of a manifesto, but of what you are telling people you will be doing.

Finally, I have just published an exchange with Nick Pearce who was in No 10 at the time, about the forces discriminating against women in British politics and the need for both men and women to do something about this for the wisdom and health of our affairs. Not a single woman appeared in the programme. 

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