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The Lib-Lab Coalition

John Rentoul

clegg 300x300 The Lib Lab CoalitionI wrote about What I Read On My Holidays for The Independent on Sunday this week. It was Five Days in May, by Andrew Adonis, which was what a lot of MPs read on their holidays too.

It is an important, urgent book. As I say, the Labour Party rule book should be changed so that, instead of requiring candidates for elected public office to be members of a trade union, they should be required to have read Adonis’s Education, Education, Education and Five Days in May.

The book is driven by Adonis’s conviction that a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats was possible. In the end, I think he is wrong about that, although it may be that it was impossible only because Labour was too demoralised, defeatist and divided to exercise the political will needed to make it happen.

If that’s the case it vindicates part of Adonis’s argument, which is that Labour should have been ready for a hung parliament, and should have seized its chance even if it looked out of reach.

His first, and perhaps most telling, anecdote is a conversation he had with Peter Mandelson at noon on polling day, May 2010. Adonis tried to persuade him take the possibility of a hung parliament seriously, but the First Secretary said: “If the country wakes up on Saturday morning and Labour is still there, there will be a wave of national revulsion.”

Only on page 139, in the chapters appended to his contemporaneous account, does Adonis admit that he “toned down” the record. What Mandelson had actually said to him was: “If Gordon Brown is still Prime Minister on Saturday morning …”

So Mandelson had a pretty good grasp of the problem after all. If Brown had resigned immediately, the whole shebang might have looked different, and different possibilities might have hoved into view.

Anyway, there is a revelation on almost every page of Adonis’s book, most of which I had missed when it was published (in May, on the third anniversary of the five days of the book’s title). Here are the ones from the contemporaneous account (I will return to his chapters looking back on three years of coalition later) that I thought were interesting:

1. Gordon Brown wanted to stand down 30 Labour candidates to boost Lib Dem chances in Lib Dem-Conservative marginals, “a suggestion rebuffed strongly by his campaign team in the days immediately before the election”. Brown returned to the idea in a late stage of Labour-Lib Dem negotiations, offering a formal pact at the next (2014) election.

2. Crucial people went missing at crucial moments in those five days in 2010. “Tony Woodley of Unite could not be contacted at first; he was in Cuba.” “Sarah [Brown, who had to be consulted about Gordon's plan to announce he intended to stand down as Labour leader] couldn’t be contacted – she had gone from dropping the boys at school to the hairdressers.”

3. Lib Dem sanctimony is nauseating. Oh, we knew that. But Andrew Stunell, Lib Dem MP for Hazel Grove and Local Government Minister until last year, replied to Peter Mandelson’s concern that reforms of House of Commons procedures might mean the possible Lib-Lab coalition government would lose control of its legislative business: “That shows the difference between us … We want to end the elective dictatorship; for you it is second nature. We are about real change and want to give power away.” Mandelson’s response was a quizzical and correct, “Elective dictatorship?”

4. Ed Miliband’s Fotherington-Thomas comment after that meeting is worth quoting in full; “I hate to say it, but I think this is destined to succeed. There wasn’t anything big on which we disagreed, assuming they don’t mean that stuff about faster cuts.”

5. Nick Clegg had a good understanding of the weakness of his position. He told Brown that, if they were to do a deal, he would prefer a coalition with Labour, because a “looser arrangement … was bound to collapse and the Lib Dems would be wiped out in the subsequent election”. The same was true of his deal with the Tories. This was also why the Alternative Vote was so important to him: “It’s essential that we can’t be massacred.”

6. It was was odd that everyone seems to have relied on the judgement of Brown and Shaun Woodward, the Northern Ireland Secretary, about how the Democratic Unionist Party would behave. Woodward told the Cabinet when it met on the Monday, “The DUP hate the Tories; Cameron has been trying to wipe them out.” No one seems to have asked the DUP’s leaders what they thought (Peter Robinson, the party leader and first minister of Northern Ireland, had just lost his Westminster seat).

7. The Lib Dem poison briefing operation was clever. After the second Lib Lab-Labour meeting, the Lib Dems told journalists that the meeting had gone badly and the “negative body language” on the part of Ed Balls and Ed Miliband was “truly shocking”. Adonis commented: “Going for body language, rather than the substance of the negotiation, was something impossible to refute.”

8. In his talks with Brown, Clegg admitted that he was worried about Europe and the Murdoch media. Not worried enough, it turned out.

9. The last official business of the Labour government were two Orders in Council read out by Mandelson as Lord President at a meeting of the Privy Council at 5pm on Tuesday 11 May, just before Brown went to the Palace to tender his resignation. One was for a 50p coin to commemorate the 2012 Olympics; the other was “for the discontinuance of burials in Holy Trinity Old Churchyard, Buildwas, Shropshire”.

10. Brown said something approving of Tony Blair, when he agreed to give Clegg one more hour to consider the faint possibility of a deal with Labour: “I’ve got to keep at it until it’s hopeless. Tony didn’t get the peace process done by giving up every time there was a roadblock.” Then he called Blair, Adonis commenting, “All warmth and passion spent on both sides.” Brown said: “I am sorry we fell out; I know it could have been better …”

11. As they waited for Clegg’s final call, the group in No 10 retold their favourite Gordon Brown speech jokes, with Gordon contributing the punch lines. Ironically, with Liam Byrne’s note waiting for his successor in the Treasury, they recalled “the one about the Chancellor and the three envelopes left by his predecessor for opening in times of trouble. The first saying, blame your predecessor. The second, blame the statistics. The third, write three letters to your successor …” The other, which I have also heard Brown deliver, was about General Montgomery. “Asked who were the three greatest generals in history, Monty replied, ‘Well, the other two were Napoleon and Alexander the Great.’”

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  • Hill244

    Dear John that booklet sounds like fiction. Didn’t Luciana Berger get parachuted in over better local folks as she was Euan Blair’s ex mainsqueeze? As for Liberal sanctimony is that “Libs against eroding civil liberty and human rights?” Both factors in ZaNuLabour losing.

  • reformist lickspittle

    Well, we’ve seen just how effective LibDems actually are at that this week……

    Haven’t we??

  • lennox10

    It will be so nice to see the Libs hammered. They’ll be lucky to have 10 MP’s left after the election. Treachery always comes back to bite you twice as hard. No doubt Call me Dave will come riding to the rescue. Maybe then the dyed in the wool true blue Tories will finally wake up and realise their dear leader despises them.

  • OnTheWayOut

    So why didn’t it occur to Labour to form a short-term coalition with the Conservatives? Lib Dems were always more left-wing than Labour, so would have been the natural solution, surely.

  • Pingback: Adonis on the Coalition Three Years On | John Rentoul | Independent Eagle Eye Blogs


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