Many insider accounts have already appeared of the events retold in David Laws’s book 22 Days in May: The Birth of the Lib Dem-Conservative Coalition. It is therefore one of the book’s strengths that not only is it written in a lively style which gives some freshness to the now familiar sequence of events but it also adds many new insights.
Although only briefly mentioned by Laws himself, perhaps the most important is how much the Liberal Democrats owe to Chris Huhne. In April, just before the second TV debate, I wrote,
It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on one of the reasons why Nick Clegg did so well in the first debate and also why the party was poised in a happy and strong position such that Nick’s debate victory boosted the party
Not only did Chris Huhne play the role of Gordon Brown in the debate preparations, but the very fact that a closely defeated leadership candidate was used in such a role reflects on how closely and how well Nick and Chris now work together.
Their leadership contest was tetchy at times and finished a nail bitter. Some predicted the outcome would doom the party to splits and further trauma, but Chris has played his role perfectly.
Laws’s book brings out into the public Huhne’s close involvement in shaping the party’s approach to a hung Parliament and how he persuaded many others of the virtues of coalition over confidence and supply. The environment in which that was done was one of mutual respect and debate – a sharp contrast from the Labour Party where so much of their approach to the hung Parliament was shaped by former and future personal ambitions.
In Laws’s account, the final outcome of the coalition talks between the three main parties was pretty much determined by the result the voters decided on (wittingly or not) in the general election. There are no “what if…” moments from the post-result events which can spur alternative histories except for one – perhaps it might have been no AV referendum and confidence and supply rather than coalition. But it would still have been Cameron as Prime Minister, and Laws’s book does not suggest any plausible sequence by which that could have turned out differently.
Laws emphasises the strong Liberal Democrat desire to avoid a second general election in 2010 because of the strong (and rich) position the Conservatives would be in but above all because a period of instability after May 2010 could have wrecked havoc on the financial markets and would have been the worst possible advertisement for electoral reform in the future. As it is, the sort of anti-hung Parliament arguments that the Conservatives used before polling day are now impossible for them to make in future with a straight face.
The book has a few barbs at others, though they are generally good humoured or discrete, as in the lack of naming names when Laws says of Clegg that, “refreshingly for a Lib Dem leader he did not spend all his time obsessing” about hung Parliament scenarios in advance of the election.
The one exception is Gordon Brown who, in every political book I have read that has come out since May, gets a heavy pasting regardless of the political loyalties of the author. As Laws recounts saying to Clegg when discussing hung Parliaments in advance of May, “If his own Cabinet colleagues cannot work with him, what chance do four or five Lib Dem ministers have?”
One nugget about Brown’s views that Laws does reveal is that in the post-election negotiations, Brown expressed a willingness to speed up the pace of deficit reduction. Another nugget about Labour’s rather dysfunctional approach to handling a hung Parliament is the quote from Peter Mandelson who, on opening formal talks with the Liberal Democrats, added that, “Of course, Alistair Darling will have views on all of this … We do not presume to know Alistair’s views”. A rather more conventional approach to negotiations would have seen the lead negotiators knowing their own Chancellor’s views before entering the room.
Aside from Brown and Labour’s approach to negotiating, some of the sharpest comments are directed at Liberal Democrat habits or outlooks, as in the description of the party’s manifesto policy to scrap tuition fees as a “comfort blanket” and an electoral “gimmick”.
More good humoured are Laws’s accounts of Paddy Ashdown, who comes through in the book as having played a central role as an advisor to Nick Clegg and others and who hasn’t changed his habits: “I switched off my phone only to be woken half an hour later by Paddy who, having failed to get through on my mobile, had managed to track down my pager number instead. I cannot remember what he said to me at 3:15am, but I have the distinct recollection of thinking that it could have waited until a more civilised hour.”
Laws’s book offers some insights into his own political views, particularly how his liberalism differs from Conservatism. Interestingly he concurs with the views of David Howarth, the former Liberal Democrat MP and a man usually seen as being from a different political tradition within the Liberal Democrats than David Laws. In Reinventing the State, Howarth argued that social and economic liberals agree on objectives, but differed on the best means to achieve them. Laws here agrees, describing the Orange Book as seeking “to explain how ‘social liberal’ ends could be delivered by ‘economically liberal’ means”.
Overall the book is an easily digestible quick read, with enough new little anecdotes to keep it interesting even for a reader already familiar with the events. It is also good to see David Laws do what some, but not enough, politicians do in their accounts of events – he remembers the contribution of staff and volunteers (both in his constituency and in the party centrally), naming, praising and thanking many.