5 Days in May: better than Borgen?

I’m not usually drawn to political memoirs, but my friend Joe reckoned I should give Andrew Adonis’s account of the fruitless coalition negotiations between Labour and the Liberal Democrat leadership after the 2010 election had resulted in a hung parliament.  You can read it in two or three hours, he pointed out, insisting that I’d find Adonis’s account of how we ended up with a Tory-led coalition revelatory.  He was right.

Andrew Adonis was at the heart of the Blair and Brown governments, first as a member of the No. 10 Policy Unit and then, after being appointed to the House of Lords in 2005, as Minister for Schools until 2008.  In Gordon Brown’s government he moved to the Department of Transport.  Adonis was a member of the Labour team that engaged in the coalition negotiations with the Lib-Dems following the 2010 general election, and 5 Days in May is his account of those negotiations –  written immediately after the events, but only published now.

You can indeed read this book in a couple of hours or so – it’s short and to the point (Adonis even summarizes his key arguments at the end in Powerpoint-style bullet points), and is quite a gripping page-turner (it’s no surprise that the book is being turned into a TV drama for the BBC).  There have been other accounts of the negotiations – including one by the leading Lib-Dem negotiator and parliamentary expenses fraudster David Laws – but (as far as us ordinary mortals can judge these things) I found Adonis’s version convincing, not least because, in drawing conclusions, he admits to having to reassess his previous views on coalition government.

Two assertions about the events of May 2010 have subsequently come to be accepted as the gospel truth: that the numbers did not add up for a Lib-Lab coalition, and that Gordon Brown clung desperately to power, so sabotaging any hope of a Lib-Lab deal.  Adonis rejects both these claims.

Adonis argues that Brown and others were right in insisting that there is no constitutional convention that the party with the most seats in the Commons must be the one that forms the government. Brown’s case was that the combined forces of Labour and the Lib-Dems could hold a majority in the Commons, with the smaller parties abstaining on key votes if they wished.  (The Conservatives had 306 seats, but needed 326 for an overall majority. The Lab–Lib total was 315. The five SDLP, Alliance and independent members from Northern Ireland were left-leaning, as was the one Green MP.  Crucially, Adonis argues, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists would never have allowed themselves to be held responsible for the formation of a Tory government, leaving a Labour-Lib Dem coalition with a working majority of around 30.  He cites Willy Brandt’s reforming coalition of the 1970s Germany and the current Swedish government as proof that second-place parties can legitimately assume power.

Adonis is scornful, too, of the fatalism of those (especially that pair of Blairite bruisers, John Reid and David Blunkett) who argued that Labour needed to ‘renew itself’ in opposition. ‘To give up power voluntarily, because you are tired of government and it is all too difficult, is a betrayal of the people you serve’, he writes.

At the heart of his account, though, is Adonis’s disillusionment with hopes for left-leaning coalition in Britain. As a former Liberal Democrat party member he was, not surprisingly, a long-standing believer in a ‘progressive coalition’ between Labour and the Lib-Dems. Adonis’s disillusionment clearly stems from the realisation, brought home by the events of May 2010, that the Liberal-Democrats are not a left-wing party.

I understand that, having been seduced by the same siren song during the frustrating years of Blair’s New Labour project.  Marching against Blair’s Iraq war in February 2003, I was hugely impressed by Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy’s appearance on stage at the Hyde Park rally alongside other speakers such as Jesse Jackson, London mayor Ken Livingstone and Tony Benn.  I was impressed, too, by Lib-Dem positions on Europe, civil liberties, proportional representation and constitutional reform which placed them easily to the left of New Labour.

In his acerbic review of the book for the Observer, Nick Cohen is scathing of people like me:

I lost count of and patience with the Billy Bragg types of the past decade, who announced that they were voting Liberal Democrat, and then stood back as if expecting a round of applause. Apparently, to be a truly right-thinking leftwinger, you had to rally behind Nick Clegg, a public-school former Eurocrat, whose ideologues had denounced “soggy socialism and corporatism” in the Lib Dems’ Orange Book manifesto.

What Adonis’s account confirms is the extent to which Clegg and other members of the Lib-Dem leadership, particularly his right-hand man and lead negotiator David Laws, shared the world-view and policy objectives of the Tories. Adonis reveals how the Lib-Dem leadership never seriously entertained a left coalition, merely playing Labour along until they had secured the one concession they wanted from Cameron – a referendum on AV.

The reason that Clegg and his crew preferred Cameron and Osborne, Adonis suggests, is that they shared a common background in wealth, education, outlook, and privilege. Despite his Europeanism, Clegg was a ‘privileged, home counties public-school boy’.  David Laws, like Clegg, was the son of a banker who had come into politics after a career in investment banking, eventually becoming a Vice President at JP Morgan.  Both men are millionaires.

Not surprisingly, therefore, both are economic liberals who believe in the ideal of the small state and both have asserted that ‘the social-democratic experiment has failed’.  The most dramatic moment in Adonis’s narrative comes with the revelation that at one of the first meetings between the Labour and Lib-Dem negotiating teams, David Laws made it clear that they had already accepted Osborne’s position on the need for an emergency austerity budget and deep cuts in public spending (this despite Clegg having campaigned against austerity in the election).

The acceptance of Tory austerity plans was crucial to the Lib-Dem leadership’s long-term strategy to convert the party away from what Laws described (in the 2004 Orange Book) as the ‘soggy socialism and corporatism’ that had captured the party under Ashdown, Kennedy and Menzies Campbell. For Adonis, ‘Clegg and Laws did not lead their party into coalition with the Conservatives despite Osborne austerity, but because of it’. Nick Cohen in the Observer:

Liberal Democrats had campaigned against austerity in the election campaign – Clegg warned of riots on the streets. But their promises on the economy, like their promises on tuition fees, were simply for show, and the reader is left wondering if Nick Clegg has ever made a promise he intended to keep.

If Clegg and co are the targets of Andrew Adonis’s opprobrium, it is Gordon Brown who emerges from his narrative as a redeemed figure, at least as presented here. Adonis explains how Brown began Labour’s campaign to remain in government with a responsible announcement that re-stated Cabinet Office guidelines and cleared the way for him to remain Prime Minister while inter-party negotiations could  take place and a conclusion was reached which he could recommend to the Queen. He drove Labour’s campaign to win a place in the negotiations and never gave up. Critically, at the outset, he set out the arithmetic of party numbers in the Commons to demonstrate that a Lab-Lib coalition could form a viable government without any need for deals with other parties. In doing this, he demolished the Lib Dem case that the figures for a Lab-Lib deal just didn’t stack up.

Further, Adonis’s account shows that Brown, albeit only slowly as the days passed, did come to appreciate that he himself was the main obstacle to coalition, given his reputation, his dismaying performance in the election campaign and the power of the argument that his leadership had been rejected by the electorate.  This was why he resigned as leader of the Labour party on the penultimate day of negotiations.

The overall conclusion drawn by Adonis from the experience of May 2010 is that ‘for Nick Clegg and David Laws, coalition with David Cameron and George Osborne was a marriage of neo-liberal minds’:

This, fundamentally, is why it was possible to form the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in the first place, and why it has survived for the subsequent three years.

Adonis reckons that the two people who really grasped the reality of power during those five days in May 2010 were David Cameron and Gordon Brown.  Cameron understood ‘the imperative to get into No. 10 at almost any price … That once he had the keys to No. 10, his room for manoeuvre, and his power of initiative would be massively enhanced.’  For Brown, there was everything to fight for – and every possibility of forging a workable left of centre coalition that could have eschewed austerity and protected public services.  Adonis reserves particular scorn for Clegg, describing him as being ‘in government, not coalition’, castigating his failure to secure key ministries and his belief that he would have more power in the role of deputy prime minister, rather than leading a key department.  Nick Cohen in the Observer again:

Adonis, the Whitehall insider, says that Clegg bungled the coalition negotiations as he bungled so much else. He did not understand how power in Britain works. Clegg should have demanded significant ministerial posts for himself and his lieutenants, but settled for the vainglorious title of deputy prime minister instead. He then compounded his folly by making constitutional reform the Lib Dem priority. Since constitutional reform has little popular support, it was easy for the Conservatives to subvert. As for being deputy prime minister, if it does not quite live down to the old description of the American vice presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”, it is not worth much more.

Adonis concludes by outlining lessons that he draws from the three years of coalition government since 2010.  With his SDP background and liberal politics, Adonis was a true believer in the idea of a progressive alliance between Labour and the Lib Dems. He has now disavowed that position:

I used to think coalition government was preferable to single-party government.  But I have changed my mind.

But now he sees things differently:

The best way to advance mainstream progressive politics is to organise, lead and win from inside the major parties.

Oddly, though, Adonis ends still foreseeing the possibility of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition after the next election.  At present, it’s difficult to envisage there being the inclination in the Labour party or sufficient Lib-Dem MPs to make that even a remote possibility.  Primarily, though, Adonis puts his faith in something called ‘One Nation’ Labour.  I remain suspicious about what this might mean (particularly after Ed Balls’ recent commitment to maintain the rigour of austerity restrictions on public spending), while agreeing with Nick Cohen in the Observer that:

The behaviour of Liberals in power shows that the only vehicle for progressive politics is the Labour party. It’s not much of a vehicle. Its engine is usually choking, its exhaust is usually spewing, its passengers are usually stabbing one another in the back, and its driver is usually heading at full speed in the wrong direction. But as Adonis concludes at the end of this revelatory and quietly shocking book, it’s all there is.

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