David Cameron was despondent on the evening of 10 May. Although the election result was pretty much as he had predicted privately, he feared that his ‘big, open and comprehensive offer’ of coalition with the Liberal Democrats was about to be rejected in favour of a deal with Labour. When we talked that night he feared another spell in opposition, and he ended by suggesting I went into the office the next day since he would have time on his hands.
But as we spoke, the Lib Dem negotiating team was reporting back to Nick Clegg on another disastrous set of discussions with Labour, ensuring that long-held hopes of the so-called ‘progressive alliance’ were shrivelling by the hour. Even Vince Cable accepted the reality of the situation. So the next day passed in feverish activity as the coalition agreement was sealed, and that evening Mr Cameron and his hastily summoned wife were clapped out of his office on their way to the Palace. After 13 years, the Conservatives were back in Downing Street in the most unlikely circumstances.
The excitement of those febrile five days is captured in these two fine accounts of the birth of the coalition. Both read almost like thrillers, such were the twists and turns as sleep-deprived men and women played a game of poker with the highest stakes imaginable. Unlike many books by politicians, they are stuffed with nuggets of genuine revelation, although some of the biggest questions remain unsolved.
Since David Laws was one of the central figures, 22 Days in May is inevitably the more absorbing, despite a slightly bland writing style and failure adequately to explain his sudden downfall. The book is designed to set in stone the Lib Dem case that there was no alternative to joining the Conservatives in full-blown coalition. Laws calls it the Sherlock Holmes strategy after a late-night discussion with the hyper- active Paddy Ashdown, who refers to a story in which the great detective eliminates all available options until there is only one possible solution. ‘Whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’
This is precisely what happens. The three other options were tested, then eliminated. Firstly, the idea of staying in opposition, then supporting a minority Conservative government, and finally a ‘Coalition of the losers’ with Labour and the smaller parties. To their credit the Lib Dems took the right decision, endorsing the electorate’s verdict, despite the potentially devastating ramifications and the hostility of previous leaders. Laws recalls how at one meeting he sat down next to Menzies Campbell, who was so angry he would not talk to him.
The account by Tory MP Rob Wilson is a more probing work, examining mysteries such as the sidelining of Vince Cable — a wise move since, in the first meeting of the negotiating teams, George Osborne asked if it was possible to discuss deficit reduction without his presence — and the unresolved issue of precisely when Cameron and Clegg agreed to a referendum on electoral reform.
The picture that emerges from both books is of two parties that were prepared for coalition and conducted negotiations with the seriousness they demanded, while the third was in disarray. ‘We would not be establishing a new government, we would be chaining ourselves to a decaying corpse,’ concluded Laws after one meeting. There can be little doubt that Labour threw away their slim chance of staying in government with a display of muddle and inflexibility.
So Gordon Brown alienates Clegg with his battering-ram style of diplomacy, then in desperation seemingly offers him half of all government posts and total control over European policy. Harriet Harman insults Chris Huhne by being unaware of his portfolio. And while the two peers — Adonis and Mandelson — valiantly struggle to hold the coalition talks together, the two Eds — Balls and Miliband — appear detached and even subversive, focused instead on their imminent leadership battle.
There was a remarkable fluidity to politics during those tense days. Parties ditched key policies left, right and centre just days after fighting for them in an election — although even the Tories were surprised by the speed with which the Lib Dems changed tack on the economy. One moment the coalition agreement proposed four-year fixed terms of government, then it was five years; such is the ease with which our constitution is changed. And Laws himself was clearly lined up to oversee transport, presumably with Philip Hammond as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, until he lobbied successfully to work alongside Osborne.
As a first draft of those dramatic days, these accounts offer a fascinating glimpse into events that will shape the nation’s history, when a new generation of Liberals in two parties united in pursuit of power. ‘Nothing unfolds as you expect,’ one of the key players tells Wilson, a statement that remains just as true for the coalition today as it did in May.