I happen to be reading two books at the moment. One is the novel Engleby by Sebastian Faulks. The other is David Laws's account of the Coalition's formation, 22 Days in May. I do not know how Engleby ends but a friend tells me I am in the hands of an unreliable narrator. What Engleby reports is one man's view of what happened. My friend's guidance makes sense of Laws's book too. The Liberal Democrat MP has written a brilliant multilayered work of art in which nothing is quite what it seems. The difference to Engleby is I know how it ends. We all know what followed the 22 days in May.
The Coalition is many things and on its own terms has been a success, governing as a more united administration than the one that preceded it. But its formation has plunged the Liberal Democrats into a deep crisis from which there is no obvious escape. Their current agony over top-up fees for students is the most vivid example of the trap they are in. If Liberal Democrat ministers vote for the increase in fees they break an election pledge made with unambiguous clarity. If they abstain they will look pathetic, paralysed over a major policy.
More widely, their poll ratings are often in single figures, and that is before the cuts are implemented. Probably they will lose the referendum on the Alternative Vote next May, with the Tories opposed and Labour no longer seeing much chance of a progressive alliance with Nick Clegg's party. At a tribute evening to Michael Foot at a West End theatre earlier this month the former leader David Steel noted mischievously: "Michael liked Liberals ... He would not have liked the Coalition ... But then again most Liberal Democrats don't like the Coalition."
Until reading Laws's book I had thought the Con/Lib coalition was inevitable because of the parliamentary arithmetic and the economic crisis. 22 Days in May suggests that these constraints were highly significant but were not the determining factor. Common ground between the leaderships of the two parties was the key.
On the surface Laws navigates us through the drama with reason and a degree of objectivity. Obviously decent and sharply intelligent, he is a reassuringly calm guide: Brown was impossible during the negotiations (we know he can be); the Tories were reasonable (they are); Balls was destructive (he can be); Ed Mliliband was left-wing (he is). On we go to the unavoidable denouement.
But step back from the compelling narrative and a slightly differentpicture emerges than the one the narrator seeks to convey. Take the phone call that Brown made to Clegg on the Friday after the election, described by Laws in lengthy detail. Laws suggests that Brown was nightmarishly unreasonable. He reports Clegg as declaring at the end of the call "That man!". A senior Lib Dem briefed the BBC afterwards that Brown had lost his temper during this call, a story that led the news on the Saturday. Evidently this is not true even from Laws's negative account.
More than this, Brown had some suggestions that merited consideration. At one point he says to Clegg: "You would get electoral reform, it would be a pro-European government and we would have a progressive economic policy. There is a real prize here." Such an assertion was contentious, but worthy perhaps of more reflection than the briefing that Brown had lost his temper. Soon the unreliability of the narrator becomes a little clearer.
At the first meeting with Labour's negotiators, Laws reports: "Ed Balls and Ed Miliband grimaced, clearly unhappy with the idea that Brown should step down." I know this is not the case. Both knew the game was up for Brown. Indeed Brown knew it too, and announced publicly on the Monday that he would resign. He had told Clegg during the weekend that he was willing to stand down.
Laws reports critically a subsequent meeting with Labour's negotiators in which he dismisses Balls for insisting that "the deficit could not be reduced any faster than outlined in existing plans". A casual reader would note Balls' stroppiness and move on. But those "existing plans" were close to the ones that the Lib Dems had advocated during the election campaign. Once the votes were safely cast, Laws portrays support for them as an act of provocation.
Andrew Adonis, one of Labour's negotiators, has written an illuminating review of the book in this week's New Statesman. Formerly active in the SDP and Roy Jenkins' chosen biographer (although he has passed that baton on), Adonis argues that the evangelists of Orange Book neo-liberalism had taken over their party and were determined to form a government with the Conservatives. He suggests that Clegg and Laws had moved their party considerably to the right, an analysis more powerful given Adonis's political origins and support for some of the Coalition's policies.
An unexpectedly clear picture emerges from Laws's account. They wanted the outcome they got. They willed it. At the top they are now happy with the policies they are pursuing. But in working towards such an outcome they have ended up implementing some major policies that are so far removed from their pre-election pledges that they are heading towards the cliff's edge. They hurtle towards a precipice because of the broader context. Clegg made "trust" the key issue at the last election, especially in the first televised debate. If Clegg and Laws had been less ready to form a coalition with the Conservatives, they might have given some more thought to the deadly consequences for their reputation. Their predecessors would have done.
In the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats are doing quite a lot to ameliorate the worst Tory instincts. Only the other day I learnt that they played an honourable role in preventing an unworkably draconian licence fee settlement from being imposed on the BBC. There are other important examples in which Clegg asserts and Cameron succumbs. Nonetheless a tiny number of Orange Book Liberals made the fundamental decisions in May, most specifically about the need to wipe out the deficit in a single parliament.
Laws reports that when Brown resigned, "George Osborne reached out and slapped me on the back in friendly alliance and celebration". Voters will be giving Laws and his colleagues something a little less friendly than a slap at the next general election. Inadvertently, Laws makes clear that their fate was not inevitable. They chose the cliff's edge. Now I must find out what happens to Engleby.Reuse content