Mandelson's Part In The Coalition That Never Was

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The Independent Culture
AT THE turn of the year 1995-6 Mandelson had been among those who attended a secret meeting at Lord Irvine's handsome house in north London. The Liberal Democrats were Ashdown, Lord Holme, Bob Maclennan, Archie Kirkwood and Menzies Campbell. On the Labour side, besides Donald Dewar, Mandelson and Irvine himself, were Tony Blair and Robin Cook. This was an interesting selection: the gathering was heavy with Scots; even more important, all the Labour participants were by now either open to, or outright enthusiasts for, electoral reform.

The encounter reached three conclusions. The first was the Cook-McLennan committee on constitutional reform. The second was to work towards a Lib- Lab coalition in the Scottish parliament in the event of Labour getting no overall majority, or an unworkably small one. And the third was that the two parties would strive not to damage each other more than was necessary in the coming general election.

But a more radical agenda was also taking shape. Blair and Ashdown would often get carried away with the limitless possibilities of reuniting Labour and Liberalism, but would agree that Mandelson and Holme would be left to examine practicalities.

The subsequent loose accord was limited to two important elements, neither of them public. One was the electoral "non-aggression pact". The other was a private understanding that Blair would invite the Liberal Democrats into a coalition, not only in a hung parliament, but if he secured a "small overall majority" - accepted by the Liberal Democrats as anything up to around 50 seats. The Liberal Democrats wanted a written coalition agreement including, but not limited to, Commons electoral reform, to which Blair would now become personally committed - at the very least by promising to campaign for the conclusions of what was to become the Jenkins commission. The Lib Dems would also require a commitment on education spending and the dropping of the second question in the Scottish devolution referendum on the new Edinburgh parliament's tax-raising powers. The Liberal Democrats would have minority representation at every level of government. The Labour team were talking of "two-plus" cabinet seats; the Liberal Democrats of "three plus".

Ashdown and Menzies Campbell were the obvious candidates for Cabinet entry; but the Liberal Democrats argued that a place should be found for a third - probably the respected Lib Dem Deputy Leader Alan Beith. The Labour landslide of 1 May, and the Liberal Democrats' own wholly unexpected tally of 46 seats, was an outcome neither Blair nor Ashdown had bargained for.

Shortly before noon on polling day, Ashdown spoke to Blair. At this point, the two leaders thought that a larger than expected majority might increase the possibility of Labour's "doing things" with the Liberal Democrats. Nevertheless, Ashdown said that if a coalition could not be made to work, a joint cabinet committee might be a possible substitute, and first stage, towards a wider agreement.

By the next morning, however, Blair's mood appeared to have changed. He was still still keen to emphasise his determination to move towards closer co-operation with the Liberal Democrats. But he was much less positive about the idea of coalition, at least in his first Cabinet. This was not such a disappointment to Ashdown. The scale of not only Labour's but the LibDems' electoral success had taken him aback. Indeed, the Labour landslide had given rise to some worrying thoughts in Ashdown's mind. Was a coalition what the British people had voted for? Neverthless, there are grounds for thinking that Blair and Ashdown have since wondered whether they had not "missed a moment" on 2 May 1997.