22 Days in May by David Laws – book review

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.

David Laws - 22 Days in May - book coverLaws’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.

You can buy 22 Days in May by David Laws from Amazon and see also Helen’s interview with David Laws about the book.

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This entry was posted in Books.


  • Agreed, Chris’ involvement impressed me, and his instincts. Leafing through the art collection was a bit weird though (but something I might have done to pass the time).

  • “the description of the party’s manifesto policy to scrap tuition fees as a “comfort blanket” and an electoral “gimmick”.

    At least this is a more honest explanation than Clegg’s agonising and Cables linking it to outright victory. However, if quoted accurately it will lead to more disquiet amongst those PCC who have today written to Clegg.

    “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.”

    Although this shouldn’t really have been a requirement from a party whose candidates had been just days earlier standing on a platform stating early cuts would be a disaster.

    In all the excerpts I have read (the ebook is due as an early Christmas prezzie!!) do show an approach the negotiations that may have been pragmatic but that did seem to veer far from the tone and content of the campaign. It may have been felt to be economically correct to speed reduction (although I disagree) but I see it as entriely anti-democratic and almost an abuse of those who voted.

    Coalition with Labour was virtually unworkable and all parties knew it. The Lib Dems were only ever in a room with them as an offering to the left of the party.

  • Nevertheless it is perhaps unfortunate that whilst Cameron negotiated to ensure he could keep all of the pledges to pensioners he made during the election, the LibDems were rather less unsuccessful in respect of the students.

  • On the day a petition signed by 104 PPC’s calling on all Liberal Democrat MPs to vote against the proposed rise in tuition fees is sent out. And all you wish us to comment on is a book review!

    Come on get a grip, Who signed it, What are they asking?

  • John Fraser 29th Nov '10 - 2:01pm

    So laws has admitted that the negotiations with Labour were not taken seriously by him and Clegg. After all previous propoganda about labour not being the serious party.

    Laws and Clegg wanted a pact with the Tories as basically laws and Clegg are Tories.

    the militant tendancy sydrome has hit the Lib dems… a party within a party that is quite happy to rubbish things such as student fees.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 29th Nov '10 - 2:10pm

    “Oh come on Sk84goal, the tuition fees rise has been discussed on here countless times so saying that it’s being ignored and all that we want people to comment on is a book review is ridiculous.”

    Actually, I think it’s astonishing that LDV has been ignoring the developments concerning the tuition fees issue over the past few days – particularly the revelation that Lib Dem ministers may abstain. The fact that there have been so many repetitious discussions about it in the past only makes it more surprising.

  • Anders – no I think Sk84goal makes a valid point – especially as this is ‘dealt with’ by the comment on Laws’ ‘view’ on the subject.

    The reality is, that most Liberal Democrats accepted the idea of the Coalition despite many of us having fought Conservatives all our political lives – mainly because we all tend to agree with the argument that British politics needs to be less tribal and more constructive.

    But as this letter points out – the leadership appear to be hellbent on destruction of the party taking the line that they do on tuition fees. The main reason being that the party appear now to the public at large to have no principles whatsoever. People who didn’t even care about the issue still believe that a party that signs a pledge to oppose something is untrustworthy when they do a complete volte face on the subject. That is all political capital gone in the first 6 months – a spending spree worthy of a Labour Chancellor – and for what – a referendum on a voting system none of us wanted and a salary increase for Nick and a couple of others? Someone, somewhere saw us coming.

  • “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.”

    which is it – was an election avoided because the Conservatives considered to be strong or rich? If the reason was to avoid an election due to a lack of party cash then fair enough that is at the party’s discretion but why not be more honest about this? If the reason is fear of the Conservatives being a strong position then this is a platitude that needs to be challenged. Without coalition agreement it is far from certain that the Tories would have been in a strong position. On the contrary they would have been a party who failed to score an open goal by gaining a majority despite the economic crisis and the ineptitude of Labour under Gordon Brown; Cameron would have looked weak and there would have been serious mutterings about his position and strategy. It is not guaranteed that they would have been in a strong position. What would have happened would have been a straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives and the Lib Dems would have been squeezed. I personally believe that this is a compelling reason for electorate reform to provide a more pluracratic political set up but do not concur with the view that the Tories were in a strong position.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 30th Nov '10 - 10:35am

    Perhaps someone with better It skils than mine could provide a link to Steve Richards’ article on page 5 of the Viewspaper section of today’s (Tuesday 30 November) Independent.

    The Tories were in a strong negotiating position: made all the stronger by the LibDem negotiators’ all-too transparent desire to surrender.

  • John Fraser: “So Laws has admitted that the negotiations with Labour were not taken seriously by him and Clegg. After all previous propaganda about Labour not being the serious party.” Everything I’ve read suggests that we could not take Labour seriously because they were not serious themselves – see the quote from Mandelson in the article. Did you see Nick Robinson’s programme, which suggested that the Labour negotiators didn’t even have a plan written on the back of a fag packet?

  • Nick (not Clegg) 30th Nov '10 - 12:10pm

    If the LibDems had written their plan on a fag packet at least it would have come with a health warning!

  • Has Laws paid back the money yet?

  • Paul Sellers 16th Dec '10 - 12:12pm

    As non-LD, but a constituent of David’s who has admired some of his political commitments, I have to say that it looks to me like being the junior partner in the colaition has simply squeezed the party to the point of asphyxiation.

    Indeed, an opinion poll taken on 9 December shows the LDs on just 8% (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8280050.stm ). Surely one has to question the wisdom of those who have so quickly turned the Liberal Democrats back into the grist for the two-party mill.

    The real crunch will come when the referendum on electoral reform is held next year. In mid-2009 there was clear support for change, but by summer 2010 this had slipped back to level pegging, and more recent polls make it apparent that the vote is likely to be lost.

    Surely that will be the time to evaluate whether to stick or fold? To continue bidding on the bad hand of coalition with the Conservatives would be to fritter away the LD’s dwindling political capital.

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