Yesterday I interviewed David Laws, on the day his book 22 Days in May was published. I asked him about the book, his views on the Coalition Government, as well as about the focus of his current work, plus his thoughts on the Ireland bailout.
In the introduction to the book, David Laws writes that its purpose is to “inform those who are interested in this important period of British politics, and to make sure that an accurate account is left of what really happened in May 2010, before memories fade, myths grow and evidence is lost.”
Why have you published this book now? You said you wanted to get matters on the record, but why not write it now and publish it in ten years? That’s the way memoirs used to work, so why so keen to publish after only six months? Isn’t history better judged from a distance?
I think it’s important for us now that people in the country understand how we made the decisions we made in May 2010, and what factors were uppermost in our minds. And also that we nail some of the misrepresentations that have come out from some of the others involved in the talks, particularly on the Labour side, where people have attempted to claim that we went into the negotiations with some sort of preconception about what type of deal we wanted. And actually what the book shows is that if we went in with any preconceptions at all, it was that a coalition with Labour would be considerably easier to deliver if the electoral maths enabled it, than a coalition with the Conservative party.
So I think that the book demonstrates that we went in without some sort of pre-agenda of who we would and who we wouldn’t deal with, and it’s very clear that we were putting the policies in our manifesto and what was right for the country as the key determinants of what we were going to do once we had discovered there was a hung Parliament.
Firstly it’s important to get down a historic record, given that this was a very important period in British politics, and having got the time to do it imposed on me in some ways, I have that opportunity.
And I think it’s also important for where we are now in politics, given how controversial the coalition has been with some people that people should understand the decision-making process, and should understand why we did what we did in May.
With cuts on the way, is this an expectation-management exercise, then?
I don’t think it’s expectation-management, but I think it’s fact-management in the sense that some people in the Labour party have claimed that we weren’t serious about the option of negotiating with Labour and I think that what this makes clear is that we did engage in a very serious way over that, and actually if there are any problems in terms of trying to get an agreement or make an agreement with Labour viable, it was really because of the lack of willingness of the Labour party rather than the Lib Dems to engage seriously in a negotiation; their lack of preparedness, the fact that their negotiating team was almost certainly split in their attitudes towards us. And the fact that on the main economic tack, the economic policy issues, that they didn’t make any of the concessions that would have been necessary in order to make coalition a viable option for us.
So the book performs two functions: it can inform the general public about the Lib Dems’ and Tories’ intentions, but it can also rebut the things that Labour are saying about us…
Was it your idea to write the book, or were you getting offers from publishers and newspapers?
No, it was entirely my idea, and I thought from the very earliest time, even while I was still in Government that it was important for us to get our version of this factually on the record. I clearly wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do that if I had been in Government, given how long it takes to do something like this. And I thought about it when I left the Government.
I originally decided that it probably wasn’t the right time, and then, in July when I thought about it again, people said “Yes, this would be useful from the party, and useful to make sure that the public record of all these events is correct.” And so I just used the time that I had, particularly in August, to get the account down.
The coalition negotiations were gruelling. Wouldn’t you have rather had a break before diving in? Many, including the media, were pushing for a quick resolution: what was it like being caught up in the pace of all of that?
I think we were always conscious that there would be a lot of pressure for a quick resolution.
Weren’t you exhausted after the General Election?
I wasn’t, no, because a) the pressures on most MPs are nothing like those on the party leaders – they must have been pretty exhausted, but for the rest of us it’s not the same scale of pressure. And b) undoubtedly there is a bit of an adrenaline rush when you suddenly find yourself pitched into something which is about forming a government and deciding upon which policies should and shouldn’t be implemented.
So I didn’t really find it all that tiring, and I thought that it was inevitable that there would be pressure to do things quickly. I thought that it would be a mistake to drag our heels and insist on doing things very slowly. And while you can’t create a government and sort out a policy agreement overnight, I always thought that if we failed to deliver one by about the Wednesday after the Thursday General Election, then we would begin to face a lot of criticism. And it would be inevitable that we as the third party, and the party with the greater democratic accountability, would be more likely to bear the burden of criticism from the other two parties.
For stalling, perhaps?
Yeah, it was more likely, I thought that we would be the ones blamed for not having a Government, and for any market instability that could follow. And obviously there was a lot of market nervousness and instability around that time, because of what was happening in Greece, Portugal and Spain, so I think we did have to do things quite quickly and not everybody on our negotiating team, as I report in the book, took that view. There were some others who took a different view and thought that we needed to take our time but I don’t think we had that option.
In future, when people get used to the process of coalition-forming it may be that there isn’t the same degree of pressure, but on this occasion, I think it was important to do it quite quickly. And I don’t think that much was sacrificed by doing it in the timescale we did.
You talk about people getting used to the process of coalition-forming – I was interested to read your article in the Telegraph: The Coalition must aim higher than merely balancing the books. I was dissecting it a bit; you keep on dropping in references to judging results over the next ten years: you said that a couple of times, and also talking about “stretching out the era of austerity throughout the entire decade,” I wondered: is that a hint? Are you hoping for or expecting a second term of coalition?
No, I think that’s highly uncertain, but I think that it’s inevitable that the parties will go into the next election fighting as independent parties with candidates in every seat. But my point in the article was firstly that we are doing the process of eliminating the deficit over a reasonably long period. People are saying it’s all rushed, but the fact is we’re taking five years to do it.
It’s hardly a rushed process, and I’m not sure that it would help the country or economic confidence if we were stretching out this process of austerity for 7, 8, 9, 10 years. I mean people want to see some kind of light at the end of the tunnel.
So it’s not with the General Election in mind..?
The reason I refer to 10 years on education and welfare reform was they just are very big pieces of work and if you expect to see some big impact on welfare reform and education, you are not going to see it just in one Parliament. I mean some of the welfare reform stuff won’t start until the end of the Parliament because of the cost of delivering, so that all this can only be judged over time and years. Who knows? In the five to ten year period, who will be running the country is highly uncertain and it could either be a coalition or it could be one party.
I know that overnight change can take five, ten years, and more. But I especially saw your article today as putting a Liberal Democrat stamp on what could have been just Conservative policies. Do you think the input on social policies is distinctly Liberal Democrat? Or do you think that actually the Conservatives are just as keen on the social side?
I think there clearly has been a strong strain of commitment to the social recovery, broken society element of policy in Conservative thinking, but it’s then translating that into the decisions that are made, and the hard commitments.
Later on in the Parliament there will be some choices to make when the deficit is brought back under control, about how we’re going to invest some of the proceeds of growth that there then are that don’t need to go to deficit reduction. All I’m trying to signal is that we then have to be ready to take action to make sure that there is enough money going into education, welfare reform, and the NHS, to make sure that those services are improved.
Do you think that there’ll be conflict further down the line if the Tories want to reduce the size of the State, will we be clawing things back for our agenda, or do you think there’s a will there ..?
I think there is the intention, at least the scope for making sure that the Coalition delivers on those priorities jointly, but we’ll have to cross that bridge when it comes, not least because at the moment everybody is focusing simply on the process of deficit reduction and therefore in a sense it’s almost easier to get both parties to agree on the big strategy.
The big strategy is deficit reduction, but we don’t want to lose sight over the Parliament of the fact that we’re not just in politics to reduce the deficit and to restore good economic management, but that we also want the education system to be improved and to see real social mobility in the country. We want the health system to get better and more responsive to consumers. We want a decent pension system and a welfare system that actually assists those people who want to get back into employment.
All those are very strong areas where there are Liberal Democrat commitments and where the policies may be slightly different from those of the Conservative Party.
After the unhappy events in May, are you still fully invested in politics? Do you hope to be more than a backbench MP in the future?
I leave the speculation for another day, really. I’ve had a difficult year, and I’m just focusing on the job I’m doing as a backbench MP, which I am really enjoying, I’ve got plenty of time to focus on lots of policy issues that I’m concerned about, and can lobby my colleagues about .
When you see the work they’re doing, aren’t you dying to get more involved?
My colleagues are doing a damn good job, so I can’t say that I’m sitting there thinking, “Goodness me, they should have done this, that and the other.”
The big judgements that Nick and Danny and the others are making, I think, are the right judgements. So that is a lot easier than it would be if I somehow felt that things were all going wrong.
Like all Lib Dem MPs I’ve got the opportunity to talk to Nick and others and communicate with them and they’re doing a good job of listening to the party.
What do you think of giving all £7bn we’re saving this year to Ireland, to bail them out?
Well, we’re not going to give it to them, we’re going to potentially advance a loan.
At the moment because the coalition has restored confidence in our economic prospects, we’re having no problems at all raising finance. Our interest rates are incredibly low, even though we have a large deficit, we can’t afford to take that for granted, but it does mean that we’re in a stronger position than we might otherwise be. And I think that the biggest threat to our economy at the moment is not the difficult position that we’re having to deal with within the UK – there are problems and pressures there – but that I think is gradually going to work itself out over time. The biggest threat would be if the world economy and the European economy in particular the people we’re trading with, took a big downturn again, and so stopping the financial chaos and contagion from spreading, I think is incredibly important.
Do you think we’ll have to bail out anyone else, in that case?
I don’t think so, but I think what we learnt from 2008 and 2009 is that if you don’t act quickly to protect big organisations – banks, countries – when these things happen, you can pay a very big price down the line. And so this time I think we are being proactive in not allowing countries like Ireland and the banking system to go down the pan.
We’ve got, as you know, a huge economic network of interests with Ireland and the Irish banks, and if that was allowed to topple over I think it would be extremely bad for our economy and it would then lead to people saying, “Well what’s the next target we can go for?” And that then would be the type of environment where we would risk the economic recovery that we’re now seeing. It’s just essential that that doesn’t happen.
So, however frustrating it is, at a time when we’re having to borrow a lot of money, we’re also having to help other countries. I think it is terribly important that we don’t allow any major country or bank to topple over.
The meme is that we’re overly sympathetic [to Ireland] and that charity should begin at home. Is that just a tabloid construct?
Yeah, and probably more over things like overseas development, whereas over Ireland, it’s not as if the Irish have been crying out for the money – for the best part of the last couple of weeks they’ve been resisting taking these loans from the EU and the IMF.
So I think people can see that what’s been done is not just in the Irish interest but it’s actually been done by all these countries because we think it’s in the European interest, including Britain.
Sometimes you get what you want;
Sometimes you get what you need;
Sometimes you get what you get:
What are you overall thoughts on the way the Liberal Democrats entered a coalition with the Conservatives?
The book shows that there was no great plot to go with one party or the other, that we were genuinely making a decision as a party on what was best for the country and what was most likely to advance the prospects of getting the policies that we stood on in the election manifesto into government, and obviously a lot of people will criticise us for the decisions that we made.
The honest truth is that we didn’t have a great deal of choice. A coalition with the Conservatives not only offered us the best prospect of delivering many of the Lib Dem policies that we regarded as important, but it was probably the only prospect of having a stable government that could deliver for Britain and the British economy.
Had we not been willing to go into coalition with the Conservatives I suspect that there would have been a lot of economic instability. There would have been higher interest rates, there would have been more speculation about the UK. And ultimately there would have had to be a second General Election, which I think would have resulted in us doing quite badly if we were seen to be to blame for there being no Government, which I think there probably would have been.
We would then have had an outright Conservative majority with no Lib Dem voice in it. Which I think most people in the country would regard as definitely an inferior option to the one that we’ve got.
So this is the government that we’ve now formed for all the right reasons, and we’ve got to be active in making it as successful as possible and ensuring that it delivers as much Liberal policy as possible. And if you were going to choose your moment to go into government, not having been in for 70 years, you wouldn’t choose a borrowing requirement of £150bn. But we can’t choose our time. These are the circumstances thrown into our lap and we can only do our best for the country and the party with the hand that we’ve been dealt .
People are giving us some credit for having established a coalition which does seem to be able to make decisions, which is so far viewed by many people as quite successful . The opinion polling seems to suggest that people do believe that Lib Dem involvement has made a difference to the nature of the Coalition in the things we’re doing.