Was there a Clegg coup? Review of The Clegg Coup – Britain’s First Coalition Government Since Lloyd George by Jasper Gerard

Many book titles reveal little about what their book contains, either providing but a banal name for its contents or a clever, clever name which obscures rather than reveals. However, The Clegg Coup – Britain’s First Coalition Government Since Lloyd George by Jasper Gerard has a title which is revealing in two aspects. First, the way general accuracy in the book is marred by detailed slips – for whilst the general point of the title is true, with the May 2010 coalition being the UK’s first peacetime coalition in Westminster since before 1939, the title does not use the word “peacetime” and relies on the technical point that Lloyd George was still alive at the time of Churchill’s coalition even though no-one talks of 1940 as still being “Lloyd Geroge’s time”. The rest of the book contains several other slips of detail which, even if sometimes justifiable with a tortured defence, nonetheless risk undermining confidence in the author’s knowledge of the topic.

Yet that would be a mistake, for in fact Jasper Gerard – a former staff member for Paddy Ashdown and intermittent speech writer for Liberal Democrat leaders – shows far more knowledge of the party’s internal workings than nearly all other writers. Any book that features both Paul Marshall and Duncan Brack in its index, with as many entries for Chris Rennard as for Ming Campbell, shows an understanding of the realities of the internal workings of the party away from the public headline figures in Parliament.

The second thing the title reveals is Gerard’s basic thesis – that Nick Clegg has brought about a major change in the Liberal Democrats, not only taking the party into power but also (and more under his control) changing the party’s policy stance radically towards a much more ‘Orange Book’ stance.

Gerard rightly does not confuse the views of people such as David Laws with those of the Conservatives, but is very clear in his sympathy for what he terms traditional Liberal approaches to public services.

Although his argument is graced with lively, high quality and very readable writing – making Nick Clegg’s family background into an even more exciting tale than Chris Bowers – it does not always convince. The argument that Clegg has carried out an internal coup rests on several key assumptions, each debatable. The party’s approach now to public services is certainly very different than under Charles Kennedy, where the policy approach was to favour having spokesmen with professional expertise in the area who could identify enough waste to free up money for both a smaller deficit (or bigger surplus in the years there was one) and also to spend more on key priorities. It was broadly an unconfrontational approach of cut waste, spend more on priorities and be nice to the professional bodies and union viewpoints – with the one major (and important) exception of Iraq. It was not one of aiming for major changes to British society. Even if the rhetoric sometimes claimed such lofty aims, the detail did not back it up.

However, the approach was widely criticised across the party – and in his own writings, one of the social liberal leaders (until he became a special advisor) Duncan Brack was far more critical of Kennedy’s line of least resistance, unradical approach than any Orange Booker. The reaction against Kennedy was not something forced on the party by a small clique led by Clegg; it was a widespread reaction from across all parts of the party.

Moreover, whilst it is certainly true that the Parliamentary Party’s outlook changed towards a more professional one based on a much greater emphasis on wanting to run the country well (as opposed to being restricted to ambitions for representing a particular geographic community), 1997 is the most plausible key turning point, not only for the infusion of the class of ’97 but for the its impact on attracting those who were elected in subsequent elections.

Had it not been for the Ashdown / Rennard success of ’97, many of those elected in ’01 and ’05 would not have been attracted to seeking a Parliamentary career (including Clegg? Discuss at leisure).

The legacies of 1997 and Charles Kennedy are rather underplayed as Gerard talks up the impact of Clegg. At times reading the book I suspected Gerard was aware of the weakness of his case for although he states if boldly and confidently several times, when he then turns to more detailed narrative, the details almost always support a much more nuanced interpretation – especially when one also factors in the simple fact that the country’s overall economic position was very different by the time of the 2010 manifesto writing from the earlier period, making a shift in policy emphasis hardly surprising. Indeed, Gerard writes of the Ashdown legacy, before backing away from considering its impact on his thesis.

Moreover, look at the four priorities on the front page of the 2010 manifesto and they do not show a particularly Orange Book flavour – the pupil premium (a central funding formula to pump more money into parts of a public service), constitutional reform (a policy interest that can be traced as far back as the party’s predecessors in all their different forms over the centuries), environmentalism (again, hardly new) and tax cuts (but balanced by tax increases; a different tax system but not a move to an overall low tax world). As coups go, that is not much of a return.

And yet, even if you end up thoroughly unconvinced by the ‘coup’, the book is a great read for its stylish commentary which shows both inside knowledge and understanding of the Liberal Democrats. Here is where you will (finally) find in print some accounts of the internal disputes amongst the authors of the Orange Book, an explanation of Danny Alexander’s role and influence and an account of the influence of CentreForum (where perhaps Gerard’s thesis is closest to being right for its influence is much greater than you might gather from the disparaging comments some activists make about it).

Clegg, both in his political skill and his commitment to liberalism, comes out of the book well as do many of his colleagues – David Laws included. Surprisingly, those who come out of it least well are the Liberal Democrat press team who, both implicitly and explicitly at various times, are blamed for failing to handle the media well, too often preferring silence or slowly returned calls to energetic, in your face, defence of the party and its personnel. (That mirrors a criticism the Independent’s Matt Chorley made at a fringe meeting I chaired at the party’s Autumn 2011 conference, where he said the party took too long to realise that when in power it will be written about – the choice is whether to provide journalists with good stories or not; ignoring the media just results in bad stories. Matt did go on to add that it is a lesson the press team have since learnt.)

So whether you are persuading by Jasper Gerard’s argument or not, do give the book a read.

You can buy The Clegg Coup – Britain’s First Coalition Government Since Lloyd George by Jasper Gerard from Amazon here.

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25 Comments

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Nov '11 - 11:47am

    The central argument in the book, that there has been a “coup”, is a dangerous one. The word “coup” means a forced takeover which has not had democratic input. If that’s what those at the top of the party think they have done, then it’s a disgrace.

    Following the 2010 general election, a Conservative-LibDem coalition was the only realistic way forward. Had there been a minority Conservative government, it is obvious that government would have engineered thing to have another general election in order to win a majority in at most a year’s time. One way they could, and if I were them would, have done it would have been to let the economy slip a bit, and blame the “instability” caused by the presence of the Liberal Democrats in Parliament and hence no party with an overall majority. They would have held off the big cuts, but put a few crowd-pleasing things through to help win the majority. Any coalition with Labour would have been unstable as lacking an overall majority, and also would have been torn to pieces by the press as a “coalition of the losers” against the election winners.

    One thing the Liberal Democrats cannot say – though I feel it is actually a big factor – is that the minority government strategy, which many of us, myself included, favoured as what to do if no party had a majority, was brought down by the poor LibDem results in the general election. The false sense of optimism at the start meant that the almost standstill result for us at the end looked like a bad lose. This was covered up by the smug “look how good it is that we are ‘in power’” line adopted after the coalition was formed. The reality is we ended the general election as the big losers. Because of that, we had the most to lose if another general election was held soon afterwards. So we were unable to use the threat of getting one called to get our own way. Had we done unexpectedly well in the general election, it might look as if we would carry on rising and do even better in another one called shortly afterwards, enabling us to be much more forceful in any negotiations. But also, to be fair, the poor economic situation meant that the minority government strategy would have looked self-indulgent, and I suspect the electorate would have punished us for it.

    So, for all the accusations thrown at us since May 2010 for having “broken our promises”, “sold out our principles” etc, I remain convinced that if we had not formed the coalition we would have a majority Conservative government in place now, and what it would be doing would be far nastier than what the coalition is doing, looking at it from a viewpoint on the left.

    OK, but accepting it was inevitable, it is those of us on the left of the party who have had to make the biggest sacrifice. We are the ones conceding the most ideological ground in accepting the coalition, we are the ones who must swallow our pride the most and do what we would rather not be doing in giving our public support to it. We are the ones facing the most personal attacks from our friends and colleagues – and I can assure those on the right, it really is personal and quite often abusive attacks if we still maintain in public our support for the party – for what the party has supposedly done.

    It would be nice if there was some acknowledgement from the party leadership of this, but there is not. The claim that this was a “coup”, a designed move to the economic right in the party rather than something that had to be accepted as a necessity undermines the line we are using to justify our continuing support for the party. It means that going out and working for the Liberal Democrats now feels, in the words used by Geoffrey Howe in other circumstances, “rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”.

    I am sorry to say the result has been a steady dropping off of activity by once committed activists, the sort of person this party relied on to get where it is. I am hearing this so often now, I heard of another couple of cases just last week when I visited my family in Sussex, some living in what were once LibDem stronghold areas. Does the party leadership CARE about this? Does it think it doesn’t matter because instead the party will get by on more donations from millionaires impressed by the “coup” which has forcibly taken the party to the economic right? If it did care, it would be very careful to quash any idea that developments in the party are some sort of “coup” and would instead be going out of its way to keep on to a public image which enabled us to continue with our public association with the party – if not exactly happy, then at least accepting what was being done at the top was being done out of necessity rather than out of zeal for a sort of politics that never was ours.

  • LondonLiberal 23rd Nov '11 - 1:00pm

    Matthew has expressed far more eloquently the state of our party than i could ever have done. Well said Mr Huntbach.

  • Bill le Breton 23rd Nov '11 - 3:27pm

    PMQs today saw a perfect crystalization of the campaign messages that we’ll hear for the foreseeable future:
    Milliband: Your economic policy (of austerity) isn’t working.

    Cameron: (Turning to the people, “Who do you trust: us or the lot who got us into this?”
    The Cameron line is a strong one and Labour (on average only 5 points ahead of the Tories in the polls) has clearly not been able to counter it (or they’d be further ahead).

    Cameron’s implied defence of the economic policy is that it is being undermined by Europe. [Neat foot work which both shifts the blame and plays to his right.]

    So, the battle ground is in no way favourable to Liberal Democrats who are tied to a festering corpse of an neo-liberal economic policy, effectively gagged over Europe, complicit in public service cuts, fronting the dilution of work place rights and hand outs to land-banking developers, having alienated the next generation of activists, swapped our core voters for some mythical new set of core voters and, because the Coup, so-called, was a coup against those who represent the Party in local Government – you know, the ones who insist on the value of delivering newsletters – its spokespeople constantly undermine the reputation of those who ‘work all year round’, have ‘a record of action and service to their community’ and have over the last 30 years been used to taking tough and Liberal decisions when in power.

  • Has Jasper got compromising photos of the LDV editors? This is the fourth plug for his book in the last 3 weeks.

  • paul barker 23rd Nov '11 - 8:26pm

    Surely all The Coup talk has come from our enemies ? We should not be repeating it.
    On the price we are paying for The Coalition, so far we have had precisely one actual test, last May. If we are going to look at “The Polls” lets look at all of them.
    The various Voting Intention Polls have us between 9 & 14%.
    The Leadership Approval Polls have us between 23 & 30%.
    At least one of those groups is wrong & if its the former then we have largely recovered our 2010 position.

  • Andrew Suffield 23rd Nov '11 - 8:36pm

    I don’t think there are many who would be willing to commend the performance of the LD press office over the past few years.

    But I agree with those who point out that this “coup” thing is not just nonsense, it’s opposition nonsense.

  • This is not Mark’s cleverest posting (and rather long) about a rather silly book by someone who doesn’t seem to know too much. How do they get the publishers to part with their money? What ‘coup’? A poor campaign was followed by a bit of fortune of the luck of the draw of the electoral arithmetic between Labour and Conservative..

    @paul barker:

    “The various Voting Intention Polls have us between 9 & 14%.
    The Leadership Approval Polls have us between 23 & 30%.
    At least one of those groups is wrong”

    I find it somewhat difficult to see how Paul (or anyone) can make sense of this statement. Leadership ratings are often miles above party approval levels. Plenty of people will pat a leader on the back for a party they would never vote for.

  • “Surprisingly, those who come out of it least well are the Liberal Democrat press team who, both implicitly and explicitly at various times, are blamed for failing to handle the media well,”

    Not sure someone who was surprised when the Mail used his book to savage the Lib Dems can really criticise others for the way they handle the media :-)

    @AndrewR – not sure that’s fair – the other three were written by the author (who is entitled to promote his book!) and Mark regularly reviews books that would be of interest. They’ve been spread over some time

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Nov '11 - 11:42pm

    Oranjepan

    Did Matthew expect to be cheered along Downing Street and stumble through the doors of power without nary a quibble of disagreement. He talks of his ideology and expects somehow that nobody would attack him because his choices present no differential outcomes, and everyone constructs political arguments in the same way, don’t they?

    Sorry, am I myself in Downing Street? No, I am not, so what’s your point? You seem to be writing as if rather than have some political ideas of my own, my position as a member of the Liberal Democrats is that I ought to be an uncritical supporter of Nick Clegg whatever he does. Sorry, I joined the Liberal Democrats, not the Nick Clegg fan club. I joined the Liberal Democrats because there are way I wanted my country to develop and I felt more influence for the Liberal Democrats would help it move that way, not because I wanted to give Nick Clegg a nice job.

    As for your idea that I would never suppose in politics anyone would attack me, well, I just don’t get your point. I’ve been attacked for my politics all my life, I’ve very often espoused and promoted views I know would be unpopular, so quite obviously what you are writing about me is rot. If I wanted to be popular for my politics rather than liked, I would not be such a strong supporter of property taxation, inheritance taxation, or an opponent of the right-to-buy of council housing – political positions I believe to be right for their long-term beneficial effect, but hard to argue because even those who would benefit most from them tend to be sucked into the emotioanml argument against them. If I wanted to be liked by those I mix with, I would not have written such a strong attack on the St Paul’s Occupy movement in a letter to the Guardian – the only thing the Guardian has printed against them since they started, with the rest of its commentators, cartoonists and letter writers regarding them as some sort of living saints who only the most disgustingky evil capitalist would criticise. Your idea that I would only stand up and say things which I believe would make me popular amongst those around me would like is just nuts and quite obviously contradicted by the evidence. If anything, I find I have an unfortunate tendency to oppose whatever it is that is the most popular views around me rather than vice versa.

    I think the point I am making is quite plain and simple. The Liberal Democrats contain a range of views. Some are closer to the Conservative Party than others. David Laws, for example, seems to me to be someone entirely comfortable with Conservative Party economics, and whose ony quibble with the Conservative Party might be its historical dislike of sexual freedom and perhaps the anti-EU feelings in it. Therefore, someone like David Laws is bound to be more comfortable with the current coalition than someone like myself who is at the opposite end of the spectrum within the Liberal Democrats when it comes to sympathy with Conservative Party economics. That is just a plain fact, is it not?

    I think you can see from what I wrote that, rather than just take the step of disowning the party and walking off saying it has “betrayed its principles” or whatever, I have gone to some lengths to explain why I understand its current position and accept the formation of the coalition, even though since I am at the end of the party furthest from sympathy with the Conservative Party, the coalition overall is much further from what would be my ideal than it is from what would be the idea of David Laws and a few others like him on the right-wing of the party.

    I think it also just plain fact that if one tends to move in circles where the predominant position is one of support for the liberal wing of the Conservative Party – such circles would include the City finance world – one is going to find justifying one’s support for the Liberal Democrats at present somewhat easier than if one tends to move in circles where the predominant position is support for the the Labour Party – such circles might include academia, where I work, or other public service work, health service or social care, which is where many of my friemds and relatives work. Average City salaries have risen by, I think it was 12%, in the past year, whereas public service salaries have been cut in real terms, and many public service workers have lost their jobs due to the cuts. Do you lack the common sense to see, Oranjepan, that right now it is a bit tough to be an “out” Liberal Democrat supporter when the people one associates with are the ones suffering most under this government?

    What I am saying is that the situation is made worse when we have those at the top of the Liberal Democrats and those within it who have the most right-wing opinions (there seems to be a considerable overlap here), and those who seem to be their hangers on, Jasper Gerard seems to be one of these, crowing about there having been a “coup” within the party, which I interpret as I would a “coup” in a country, that is the use of force to impose one’s own control against the democratic opinion. It’s overblown and damaging language if they really do want to see our party survive as a significant force.

    Any decent manager knows that if you lead a team you have to keep all on board, and that means doing what you can to satisfy all sides rather than showing favouritism to one. If circumstances mean there are some in the team who might particularly be feeling unhappy, you do something to try and make them feel it is worthwhile their carrying on. If you don’t do that and instead act in a way that suggests you’d rather be rid of them, well, that’s bad management unless you have a deliberate plan to destroy your team.

    Crowing about the “Clegg coup” makes sense if one’s aim is to drive the left and centre out of the Liberal Democrats and so reduce it only to its right wing. If that aim were achieved, I don’t see any future for the Liberal Democrats, since I see no sign at all of there being any mass support for such a party. If they don’t care, and their real aim is to survive in a few seats where the Conservatives stand down and let them run as the local franchise for the political right, well ok, they’re doing well to push things that way. The Liberal Party nearly vanished that way in the 1950s, so there’s historical precedent.

  • Matthew Huntbach is right and actually putting forward arguments on every point discussed, Oranjepan is wrong and seems to be cherry picking.

    Put bluntly, there’s a lot of burying of heads in the sand regarding Clegg at the moment, there are perfectly good cases to be made supporting or rejecting Clegg but Clegg-supporters don’t seem to accept much debate on the matter, which is what I’m seeing right now. If you’re an ordinary member or a non-member supporter you have absolutely no reason to prove any kind of loyalty, so I don’t see why even if anyone supports Clegg why they should try and stifle debate.

    What I think is undeniable about Clegg is that he has attempted to move the party to the right, to a more economic liberal position and that he is governing more like a Tory or Labour leader than a Lib Dem one – he has his circle rather than attempting to connect with the party as a whole. Some of this is necessary, out of being in coalition with the Tories and not really having any conference arrangements appropriate for deciding policy at the pace required in government.

    Some of it, however, is unnecessary and damaging. The image of the LD party was forged in the public’s mind during the Ashdown and Kennedy years as a primarily social liberal party, though economic liberals have always been a part of the LDs they haven’t really made it into the public consciousness in most areas. Moving to the right risks alienating the primarily social liberal supporter base of the party and should have been handled with a bit more care and tact.

    Clegg acting more like a non-LD leader (making his own calls rather than deferring to conference etc) has resulted in some bad calls where he has mistaken his own personal view for that of the party and its supporters. For instance tuition fees aren’t something he cared about, nor most of his circle – but they matter hugely to the party as a whole and to its voters. His not fighting for them in the coalition negotiations was, in my view, undemocratic, given how often conference voted to maintain that policy.

    A coup is overstating it, but Clegg is exercising more power in a personal capacity than is normal for a LD leader. I would say with Clegg that he has had good tactics (though many individual slip-ups) but bad long term strategy and I fear for the LD party come 2015.

  • Lib Dems form coalition with Conservatives – greater emphasis on the rightish aspect of our policies and discomfort for the leftish members.

    If Lib Dems were to form a coalition with Labour – greater emphasis on the leftish aspect of our policies and discomfort for the rightish members.

    End of story.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Nov '11 - 11:57am

    Oranjepan

    If you’re happy to take positions which you acknowledge are unpopular it doesn’t really make sense for you to also say you don’t like the fact this makes you unpopular. That you then say “I just don’t get your point” only compounds the incoherence of your behaviour

    Oh, for heaven’s sake, I think the point I am making is obvious.

    I am happy to take positions which are unpopular if I believe they are the right positions and will work out successfully in the end. The problem is when they are unpopular and I don’t think they will work out in the end. You seem to be thinking that so long as a position is unpopular is must be good, unpopularity is an end in itself. I think the end is policies that work.

    If I believed that Tory policies would work and were the best ones. I’d have joined and campaigned for the Tories, wouldn’t I? This government by its nature is predominantly Tory – as I have said I accept the coalition situation means the Tories paint the broad picture, we get to fill in some the details. Some may suppose that large numbers of little details of our against small numbers of whoppingly big Tory points pushed through should be rejoiced at as “75% of our manifesto implemented”, well, I could be rude but I won’t at least here and now.

    Those in the Liberal Democrats whose political views were closer to the Tories in the first place will be more sympathetic to those Tory policies because less likely to believe they are totally misguided and so more likely to believe they will at least in part work. That is why it is easier for them to make the compromises that have to be made now if one wishes to remain an active member of the Liberal Democrats. What don’t you get about that point?

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Nov '11 - 12:34pm

    DunKhan

    If you’re an ordinary member or a non-member supporter you have absolutely no reason to prove any kind of loyalty, so I don’t see why even if anyone supports Clegg why they should try and stifle debate.

    Indeed. Even more so, this party relies on enthusiastic volunteers. If people feel uncomfortable about promoting the party, they won’t go out and work for it, or at least not as much as they used to. There are, I am sure, many members of the party who can see that the coalition situation does require compromise and want to support it in what it can achieve within the coalition, but are nevertheless unhappy about those aspects of the coalition which are very much those of the Conservative Party. The more you are to the left of the party, the more this will be so.

    I would very much like to be able to defend our party in public, and I have given the reasons for that. I would very much like to be able to say that, yes, we lost the election, the distortion of the electoral system used means we have a government which is predominantly Tory, there was no real choice for us but to become junior members of a coalition which they led, the result is not what we would have put through if we were in the majority, but we can at least get some policies through that would not have got through had we a majority or even a minority one-party Conservative government. Not only would I like to do that – up until a couple of months ago I WAS DOING THAT, I had a number of letters published in the national press defending the Liberal Democrat position in the current government, and would try when I could to write another when I though our party was being unfairly attacked for “selling our principles” etc.

    But if we are now told, as we are in this “Clegg coup” book, that the current position arises not our of necessity but out of a deliberate push by senior members of the party to push it to the right, done covertly rather than through the party’s democratic mechanisms, then I am totally undermined. The argument I have been using to defend our party no longer apply. I have been taken for a mug. I have spent my OWN TIME and OWN EFFORT defending the party, not getting paid for it, and now I find the lines I was using are not true, I have been duped into promoting something that was not really the case. The stand I have made up till now in support of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition has been destroyed – and destroyed, according to this book, by the party’s leader and those close to him.

    Sorry, but that means I won’t be giving my public support to the party any more. I will not do it until the “Clegg coup” has been reversed. It was very foolish of the right-wing of the party to let this book get out and so reveal what they were really up to.

  • Tony Dawson 24th Nov '11 - 4:10pm

    @Liberal Eye.

    “Surely Clegg was elected leader precisely because he was seen by many as the candidate most closely identified with the economic liberal camp ”

    No, he was primarily elected because of his undoubted presentational skills, which bailed out the party’s lacklustre campaign in 2010. Many if not most of the party members would not have seen obvious ideological differences between the main leadership contenders.

  • Old Codger Chris 24th Nov '11 - 5:43pm

    It seemed to me – perhaps wrongly – that there was very little difference between Clegg and Huhne in their leadership battle.

    General elections are largely fought on TV and in the press and there can be no doubt that Clegg’s presentational skills were far far better than Kennedy’s in 2005. So why wasn’t our 2010 result better? I suggest it’s because the Conservatives looked more credible and less toxic than in 2005 (Michael Howard came across as a caretaker on a damage limitation exercise) and on that crucial issue – it’s the economy stupid – Labour were in desperate trouble.

  • Radicalibral 25th Nov '11 - 8:35am

    Whilst I understand that George Osborne has to announce to Parliament first about the headline Financial figures of the Autumn Statement, Nick Clegg filled me with no confidence that to make the Youth Contract work there will not be matching cuts in Tax Credits for the lower paid. It was a straightforward question, and the only answer he was being asked to give in his interview on the Today Programme was this one and he fell into the trap of the “old parties” of obviscation in answering this question. I thought Lib Dems were about not playing old political games.

  • @oranjepan:

    “Thankfully we now have better communication technology, which enables us to reach a wider audience and forces wider agreement on the issues to help build wider support for our policies, and we now have a few more MPs as a result.”

    Would you care to name those Lib Dem MPs who you think owe their seats to: “better communication technology”? My understanding is that they mostly owe their seats to local leadership, extreme levels of effort on the ground by core teams and good central support when needed.

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