Five Days in May: The Coalition and Beyond

Andrew Adonis

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.

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Roger Liddle is a member of the House of Lords

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Comments: 2...

  1. On June 12, 2013 at 3:49 pm Ric Euteneuer responded with... #

    I’ll buy this when it isn’t £13 – a bit steep the length and for what it is – but I admit that, my distaste for the politics of grammar school enthusiast, Lord Adonis and fellow turncoat politician, Mr Liddle notwithstanding, it will be intriguing to read the ‘other side of the story’ from David Laws’ self-serving and partial account from the other side (“22 Days in May”). Anyone reading the Fib Dems neo-liberal bible. the ‘Orange Book’ in the run up to the election – in which Laws advocates replacing the NHS with private insurance – would be in no doubt that this faction of the Lib Dems that took power with Clegg at the helm were hell-bent at best,on a coalition with the Tories, or at worst, considerably more legroom than New Labour would have ceded. They would have been completely at home with an all Progress cabinet, but thankfully that was never likely to prevail.

    Which leads us to Adonis’s account. As a former Lib Dem himself, he was probably best placed to negotiate with those of flexible political views and morality. The right of the Libs were *always* going to badmouth Labour and here is the truth of the matter – it was the Liberal Democrats that were lukewarm on the whole deal, not Labour. Nick Clegg’s decision to back George Osborne’s deficit- reduction plan was proof that the Orange Book Liberals really wanted nothing to do with Labour.

    Liddle says the parliamentary arithmetic did allow an anti-Tory coalition to be formed, a Lib Dem/Labour coalition would have been a minority administration subject to the whims of Plaid, the SNP, the SDLP or sundry Unionists from NI. And the Tories would never have tired of exploiting just that. Liddle can’t let his Liberal past go though. Labour were never in a month of Sundays going to back AV as constitutional reform. It is neither proportional nor representative, and the chances of the party backing it were close to zero.

    From perhaps a different perspective to Liddle’s, I do agree that the Blairites amongst the Party leadership gave a higher priority to bundling Brown out of the Labour leadership than keeping Cameron out of Downing Street, thinking that Miliband D could only be eased into power in this way.

  2. On June 12, 2013 at 6:25 pm Ric Euteneuer (no Disqus a/c) responded with... #

    Oh, and before I forget they really should say that Adonis is a senior figure in Progress here – and consequentially, we’re hardly likely to get anything other than a complete hagiography from him here, not least from Liddle. Seeing the phrase “Adonis’ extraordinary mix of intellectual clarity and irrepressible energy” made me cringe myself inside out.

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