BiteBack Publishing | 208pp | £12.99
Five Days in May is a grippingly told tale of failure. Even someone with Andrew Adonis’ extraordinary mix of intellectual clarity and irrepressible energy could not pull together the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition that would have kept David Cameron out of No 10.
I was there at the start. Adonis came round to our house to watch the 2010 results and the long night was enlivened by a series of phonecalls from the prime minister discussing with him the arithmetic of a hung parliament, the constitutional position and the chances of a Labour-Liberal Democrat deal. Gordon Brown was completely up for it. Adonis firmly rebuts the Liberal Democrat canard that the Labour negotiating team led by Peter Mandelson and including him, Harriet Harman, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, were not serious in their intent to make a coalition work.
Adonis is right in two key judgements he makes. First, the parliamentary arithmetic did allow an anti-Tory coalition to be formed – just look at the size of the majority we won against the boundary changes when everyone ganged up on the Tories).
Second, the biggest obstacle was Nick Clegg’s decision to back George Osborne’s deficit- reduction plan. This was despite all the reservations he and Vince Cable had consistently expressed throughout the general election campaign. Labour should have spotted that Clegg’s decision to keep Cable out of the Liberal Democrat negotiating team was the sign that he had bought into the flawed argument that Alistair’ Darling’s plan to bring down the deficit was not enough.
However, Adonis’ account underestimates the difficulties on the Labour side. Brown could have laid the ground for a future Liberal Democrat deal when he took over in 2007 if he had stuck to his plan to reinvigorate constitutional reform and forced his cabinet to back the alternative vote; but he retreated in face of the predictable opposition.
Second, the Darling plan would have been much more credible if the plans had been fleshed out before the election as the chancellor of the exchequer himself had wanted. The truth is that there was a large question mark over whether an exhausted team of Labour ministers would have had the nerve to go ahead with the deficit reduction to which they were in principle committed. I believe they would, but with a leadership election in prospect there would have been much anguish and some element of manoeuvring along the way.
Third, too many senior members of the parliamentary Labour party were ready to surrender power without a fight. In truth, and it is a harsh truth, they gave a higher priority to bundling Brown out of the Labour leadership than keeping Cameron out of Downing Street.
For better or worse the party and the country are now living with the consequences. But read the book. It is short, it has the pace of a thriller and it brilliantly describes a game-changing moment in British politics. In all likelihood it contains important lessons for the not-too-distant future.
Roger Liddle is a member of the House of Lords
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