5 Days in May: The Coalition and Beyond Andrew Adonis

Biteback, pp.185, £12.99, ISBN: 9781849545662

Andrew Adonis enjoyed a week of glory in 2010. The former Lib Dem activist was asked to join Labour’s negotiating team as they tried to forge a coalition with Nick Clegg in the aftermath of 6 May general election. Adonis admits that his account of those five days is ‘vivid, partisan and angry’. And it seems strange that, as a Lib Dem defector himself, he should accuse the Lib Dems of ‘perfidy’ in their dealings with Labour.

The politician in him can’t resist the opportunity to attack his former colleagues. He shoves the knife into David Laws for admiring George Osborne and for advocating ‘faster and deeper’ cuts to the deficit. When Laws wrote a book on the same subject, 22 Days in May, he suppressed the Lib Dems’ draft agreement with Labour. Adonis publishes it here purely to embarrass Clegg and co with the infamous clause 3.4, ‘a commitment not to raise the cap on tuition fees’.

Adonis also tries to stir it up between Clegg and Vince Cable by re-announcing their well-known dislike of each other. Cable was once a Labour councillor in Glasgow, while Clegg is represented as a natural Home Counties Tory who declined to join the Conservatives because his cosmopolitan background would have precluded him from securing a Conservative seat. Adonis genuinely believes that having a Spanish wife, a Russian grandmother and being fluent in several languages is enough to convince most Tory activists that you’re some kind of Communist double agent. This barmy verdict suggests that Adonis has a stupefyingly blinkered view of his political opponents.

The book catalogues every meeting between the Labour and Lib Dem negotiators during those frantic five days, but the cascade of details will seem irrelevant to anyone but the most obsessive political wonk. The book’s centre of gravity is not the telling of recent history but the management of the near future. In effect, it’s a primer for party leaders hoping to form a coalition after a future hung parliament. Adonis has three key rules.

1. Keep your troops disciplined.
2. Intervene early to shape public opinion and optimise your negotiating position.
3. Bid high when haggling for cabinet seats.

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Both Labour and the Lib Dems ignored these strictures in 2010. Gordon Brown’s attempts to broker a deal were seriously undermined by two of Labour’s scaliest old dinosaurs, David Blunkett and John Reid, who attacked him for disregarding the verdict of the electorate and failing to withdraw from the field. Tory MPs, by contrast, observed a dignified silence which vastly strengthened Cameron’s hand. Adonis argues that Brown blundered by not offering to quit immediately. Had he resigned as Labour leader on Friday 7 May, and promised to leave No. 10 as soon as a new government was in place, a Lib-Lab coalition would have been possible.

Finally, he suggests that Clegg botched the horse-trading over cabinet positions. Clegg took charge of no ministry and instead accepted the swanky but vacuous title of deputy prime minister. And he declared himself the champion of constitutional reform and promised an upheaval as magnificent and far-reaching as that of 1832. And we all know how that turned out.

Adonis finishes by making a coded offer to the Lib Dems in 2015. He asks them to take either the Foreign Office or the Home Office and to choose three more departments from the following: Health, Education, Transport, Defence or Climate Change. This is a much juicier deal than the contract agreed between Cameron and Clegg.

The book closes with a chapter entitled ‘From Coalition to One Nation’ where Adonis repeatedly uses the label ‘One- Nation Labour’ as if it were the party’s new title. And his earnest plea for a Labour majority in 2015 includes this strange equivocation:

This makes it all the more important for Labour to seek to win the next election on its own, as a broad One Nation coalition.

It’s significant that his criticism of Clegg never reaches the point of outright condemnation. Clearly he sees him as a usefully indistinct figure who can successfully unite the right and left wings of his party. As Clegg reads this book — and much of it is addressed directly to him — he will rub his hands with a rising sense of hope and anticipation.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Andrew Adonis, Book review, Coalition, Lib Dems, Nick Clegg, Politics