Was the Coalition Built on a Lie?
He told them that Labour had offered the Lib Dems the introduction of AV [Alternative Vote] without a referendum. This was not true. The Lib Dems had argued for introducing AV and then holding a validating referendum afterwards, but Labour’s team wouldn’t agree … So someone was not being straight. Either Cameron dissembled to his MPs to secure their backing or he had been misled by Clegg.
This has from the start been one of the key historical questions of the five days that made the Government. All credit to Michael Crick, who asked on 26 July, “Was the coalition built on a lie?”
Now we have the verdict of Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley in (“A British general election is not over until this book appears” – Peter Hennessy) The British General Election of 2010 (p214):
At no point, in any of the formal meetings they held, did Labour ever offer the Liberal Democrats electoral reform without a referendum … On the authority of Nick Brown, the Chief Whip, they made it clear that they could not carry an AV bill without a referendum through the Parliamentary Labour Party. It is possible that legislating for AV without a referendum was offered in one of the private meetings between Brown and Clegg, but both Clegg and Brown deny this. After one meeting with Clegg, Brown said that he didn’t think it was an option, telling an aide, ‘We’d get killed and the party would not have it.’
So what was going on?
Cameron’s defence is that he did not deceive his backbenchers, because he believed it at the time. Several of those involved in the negotiations still remain convinced that the offer was made at some point – there were, one said, ‘lots of channels’, and Brown was ‘offering anything’. Certainly several senior Lib Dems genuinely believed at the time the offer had been made.
Kavanagh and Cowley say that both the Lib Dems and the Conservative leadership deny they were the source of the story, but point out that “it suited both”, and conclude:
Whether it was a lie or just a misunderstanding is still not clear, but it may not have been as crucial as this claim [made by angry Tory MPs] implies either.
The claim about the Labour offer would not have made a difference to what the Tories offered the Lib Dems. At that stage they were merely offering a commission of inquiry into voting reform, whereas Labour was formally offering a referendum on AV. Cameron had to match that in order to do the coalition deal, regardless of misinformation about a higher Labour offer.
The stories may have helped put pressure on Conservative backbenchers, but they did not change a fundamental reality under-pinning the negotiations.
In that sense, then, the sense that there was an untruth but the coalition wasn’t built on it, Crick’s question is number 409 in my long-running series. And Tory MPs would probably have approved the coalition without that added pressure. But you can see why some of them might be resentful.Tagged in: contemporary history, headline
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