Review: Coalition, by David Laws

Coalition: The Inside Story of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government (Biteback; £25)

David Laws CoalitionIf journalistic reportage is the first rough draft of history, then the politicians’ memoir has a good claim to be the second — at least as far as contemporary political history is concerned.

Few are better placed to give the inside account of the UK’s first national coalition in living memory than David Laws. Laws was at the heart of the coalition before it had even been conceived, as part of a small Lib Dem team preparing for a hung parliament, and was then one of four Liberal Democrats to make up the party’s negotiating team when possibility became a reality in May 2010. From thereon in he bore witness to every significant decision made over the next five years, even though two of those years were ostensibly spent on the backbenches.

Laws has two other advantages, too. The first is the intelligence and insight that has earned him respect across the Lib Dem party — even from those with whom he often disagrees — and beyond. The second is his proximity to Nick Clegg, who allowed Laws access to his papers from his time as deputy prime minister in the preparation of this book.

All of that meant that expectations were high for Laws’s account; fortunately, he not only meets them but surpasses them in almost every respect.

The question posed by Laws in the book — explicitly in the final chapter, but implicitly throughout — is the one that every Liberal Democrats has asked in the last year: was it worth it? In answering that question Laws cannot be accused of shying away from the impact that coalition had on the party: the first chapter depicts in painful detail his own electoral defeat in Yeovil (2010 majority: 13,000).

But nor does Laws’s conclusion come as any great surprise. As the architect of the project, and having played a crucial role in its delivery, Laws’s case is very simple: a day in government is better than many hundreds in opposition.

And the case is persuasively put. On almost every page of the book, Liberal Democrat ministers are blocking Conservative ministers’ plans — from billions of pounds additional welfare cuts to at-will firing of employees  — and implementing Liberal Democrat policies that go beyond even the contents of our 2010 manifesto. At the end of the book is a chronological summary of every key Lib Dem achievement in government. It is difficult to read it and come to a different conclusion to Laws.

But even in the exercise of setting out the many Lib Dem wins, Laws highlights one of the crucial problems the party had in government. Whilst our government ministers were making decisions every day of the week — both blocking Tory plans and implementing Lib Dem priorities — that were in themselves significant, they were inevitably often technical decisions that would do little help us politically.

And even when we were responsible for the big decisions in government — significant increases in the income tax personal allowance, the pupil premium and protection of schools funding, major pension reforms — they were often announced in financial statements (budgets, autumn statements and spending reviews) with great flourish by George Osborne, even when a matter of days earlier he had been opposing them and pushing Conservative priorities (generally tax cuts for the well-off and welfare cuts for the poorest). Indeed, George Osborne’s political guile (and ambivalence towards the less fortunate) is a frequent topic of the book.

Education Minister David LawsThe frustration that Laws and other senior Liberal Democrats felt at this throughout the coalition is palpable, but it is fair to say it is a circle that was never squared. In the end, Nick Clegg simply stopped turning up to Osborne’s big speeches.

There is plenty in the book, too, on the personalities that made up the coalition. Those personalities, Laws accepts, were often crucial to the government’s success — the ability in particular of Cameron, Clegg, Osborne, Alexander, Laws and Letwin to get things done was plainly very important. Much of the media coverage of the book has unsurprisingly focussed on Laws’s observations on Conservatives — the prime minister and Iain Duncan Smith in particular — and there is certainly much insight there. Indeed, David Cameron is probably the person who has gone down most in my estimation having read the book.

But there is plenty to interest Lib Dems in particular, too. Nick Clegg is portrayed sympathetically, and much more privately self-critical than his public confidence would often have suggested. From 2012 onwards he was not infrequently asking himself and those around him whether it would be better for the party for him to stand aside and allow a new leader to take over.

Danny Alexander, too, comes across well. Alexander, of course, took over Laws’s job as chief secretary to the Treasury in 2010 and remained there until the end of the coalition, and whilst there is the occasional critique of Alexander as having absorbed a little too much Treasury orthodoxy, he is in general seen as a voraciously hard worker and a crucial figure in the implementation of Liberal Democrat policy priorities time and again. He is also credited as playing a perhaps determinative behind the scenes role in keeping the United Kingdom together during the Scottish independence referendum.

Other Liberal Democrats (Chris Huhne, for instance) fare somewhat less well. Vince Cable’s presence is often as a rather less than cheerful one around the Cabinet table — even in the later stages of the coalition once the economy had begun to pick up. The relationship between Cable and Clegg was not always the happiest, particular at (the hardly irregular) times when Cable was publicly critical of aspects of coalition economic policy. Indeed, Paddy Ashdown is recalled at one point as having called for Vince to be sacked for expressing such divergent views (privately Laws was more sympathetic, particularly in 2011-12, and fought for a more creative economic policy).

On at least two occasions — once successfully, once not — Laws argues against Clegg’s plan to sack Jeremy Browne from his ministerial positions. His eventual sacking led to a significant deterioration in Browne and Clegg’s relationship, though on Laws’s account Clegg’s decision to sack him appears not to have been a personal one.

With a book such as this the author has to choose carefully the amount of detail included. Running to nearly 600 pages, one could never say that Laws’s account lacks detail, and it is clearly inevitably aimed primarily at a more general, non-Liberal-Democrat audience. But some parts of the book will, I suspect, leave Lib Dems feeling that they want to know more — such as the account of the crucial 2013 autumn conference decision on economic policy, which the leadership won. But that would be to make it a quite different book.

Laws’s own role, too, is occasionally underplayed. For instance, it is now easy to forget that the early period of the coalition government was characterised by relatively high inflation, thanks to global food and oil prices and an increase in VAT. In 2011, before Laws returned to government, a decision had to be taken about the level of the following year’s increase in index-linked welfare benefits, which traditionally rise by whatever the level of inflation the previous September. In September 2011 the rate was 5.2%: an increase of this magnitude was not a happy prospect from the Treasury perspective. However, Laws was firmly of the view that it would be quite wrong to give many of the poorest and most vulnerable people a real-terms benefits cut, and made his case strongly to the Lib Dem leadership. He was ultimately successful and recipients received their 5.2% increase. What Laws doesn’t detail is exactly how this was achieved, which involved a (presumably carefully) leaked letter from Laws to Nick Clegg making the case for the 5.2% increase, which appeared in the Financial Times in November 2011.

Given the proximity of events, it is perhaps inevitable that the reader does not get the inside story of every bit of politicking that went on: there has to be something left for the historians to uncover.

The dust-jacket (orange and blue, of course) of Laws’s book contains this endorsement from Times columnist and former Conservative MP Matthew Parris: “There are few — even from within my own party — whose inside story of the 2010-15 coalition I would trust more than David Laws’s.” I would always have agreed with that, but Laws’s masterful account only confirms me in the view. Laws, like many Liberal Democrats, paid a heavy price for his role in the coalition, but he is clear that even with the benefit of hindsight it “was a price I was and am willing to pay”. His account of the reasons why will likely stand as the definitive case for those of us for whom the answer to the question of whether it was worth it is still — despite everything — an unequivocal yes.

You can buy the book here.

* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Geoffrey Payne 21st Apr '16 - 2:04pm

    I am currently on page 82, and I agree there is an issue about lack of detail, although the book is certainly large enough. I am amazed at the short chapter on the Lansley NHS reforms. David Laws says he was against them all along, but as far as I can tell he did nothing about them. What an opportunity missed!

  • Bill le Breton 21st Apr '16 - 3:13pm

    It is good to see it admitted here that Laws was ” the architect of the project, and … played a crucial role in its delivery.”

    But few will agree that “a day in government is better than many hundreds in opposition” when the result of the management of the situation led to the destruction of the Liberal Democrats as a fight force in the following Parliament and probably in many that follow this one. Very few people in history destroy political parties. It is uniquely incompetent, however you dress it. For people in a hurry the price might have been worth it, but for those with a respect the long run the price was too much.

    But this is also to suggest that there was no alternative in the way May 2010 was handled, the way that the relationship between the two parties was managed by the Liberal Democrats and absence from the start of an exit strategy.

    The political year 2010/11 was a series of acts of political incompetence.

    If Clegg (from 2012) was indeed constantly asking whether he should step down, it is clear that he asked the wrong people. Which itself is poor leadership. By late 2010 it was clear that his reputation was irredeemable and that if he continued to be its figure head, so was the Party’s.

    The plea here that Laws tried to change the Coalition’s economic policy would seem to fail to admit that when disinflation continued to mire the economy his greatest fear was inflation and that, if the Party put forward ideas to tackle policies to boost nominal gross domestic product (aggregate demand), it risked being labelled the ‘Party of Inflation’ shows that his greatest failing was lack of political courage.

    He was the one person who could have allied with Cable to overcome the Treasury view of (Macpherson) and Tory (Harrison). Why did they dislike Cable so much? Jealousy?

  • Bill le Breton 21st Apr '16 - 3:27pm

    What Professor Philip Cowley, one of the authors of The British General Election of 2015, told Mark Pack,

    “I used to think that – for all the pain it was causing – the Lib Dems had little choice in 2010 but to do what they did.

    “I changed my mind, about 2am on 8 May 2015. The scale of the defeat in 2015 – down to 8 seats, more sixth places than first places, and so on – was so great that the discussion of alternate strategies post-2010 suddenly seemed otiose. Whatever you might have done in 2010 or in the years after – to have allied with an unstable rainbow coalition with Labour, to have refused to join office at all, to have exited the Coalition early – there seems almost no way in which the outcome could have been worse than being reduced to the same number of MPs as the Democratic Unionist Party.”

  • I think the conclusion is pretty obvious. No a day in government is not worth many hundreds spent building a party into an effective opposition. More importantly, know your voters.
    It was never sensible for a party with high proportion of students, disabled people and public sector workers in their electoral base to go into a coalition with a pro-austerity, small government and belligerent Conservative party. At lot of us were saying this at the time. Having said that, once the coalition was formed there needed to be a get out plan and a change of leader, but that was blocked off too. Then to cap it all the election campaign in 2015 failed to understand that the Conservatives were the main opposition to the Lib Dems in many seats. My belief is that Nick Clegg and to an extent even David Cameron were convinced that the coalition would continue beyond 2015 and this is why unflattering polls were ignored or down played.

  • Peter Watson 21st Apr '16 - 5:51pm

    @Glenn “It was never sensible for a party with high proportion of students, disabled people and public sector workers in their electoral base to go into a coalition with a pro-austerity, small government and belligerent Conservative party.”
    I don’t believe that the mistake was going into coalition with such a party. I think the problem was that Lib Dems in government did not present themselves as a moderating influence, a reluctant partner, an independent voice, etc. If Lib Dems had demonstrated that they were standing up for the groups you mention, that they dissented from some of the policies that they had to permit, then the public might have had a different opinion of the party. Perhaps it was a misguided commitment to collective responsibility, perhaps it was a fear that Lib Dems would not receive credit for any economic recovery; either way, the party’s leaders threw away the support of those who put them into government. Shedding a little light now onto private disagreements 5 years ago is too little, too late, and the mistrust engendered by their actions weakens their credibility.

  • “a day in government is better than many hundreds in opposition.”

    What a very odd conclusion to come too.

    A party that is in “strong opposition” can be very effective against a party that is in “weak Government”
    As we have seen since the 2015 election. The Government has been forced into many U-Turns by the opposition i.e. Cuts to Personal Independent Payments.

    If the Tories had been forced to rule as a minority Government in 2010. The Liberal Democrats would have been in a better position to hold the Government to account and the Tories would have had to either water down their policies or trade policies with other parties to get them through parliament.
    Instead, the Liberal Democrat leadership, i.e Cleg, Alexander and Laws handled the coalition completely incompetently, were far to submissive to the Tories, hence the reason they were punished at the 2015 election for policies like the bedroom tax and tuition fee’s and only ended up with 8 MP’s

    Decades of building the party up to be a 3rd party in British politics, only to have it destroyed by a couple of incompetent figures who were so blindingly arrogant towards its grass roots, was and always will be an outrage.
    How anyone can come to the conclusion that 1 day in Government is worth it, is totally beyond me. In fact no it isn’t, it shows exactly the level of arrogance in the party hierarchy that causes the problems in the first place

  • Stephen Hesketh 21st Apr '16 - 6:26pm

    @Nick T | Thu 21st April 2016 – 1:01 pm

    Nick, firstly thank you for reading and reviewing this book and providing an enlightening summary. I feel your article and this thread are likely to be amongst the most read and perhaps commented upon on LDV this year.

    You write, “… But nor does Laws’s conclusion come as any great surprise. As the architect of the project, and having played a crucial role in its delivery …”

    Nick, I am interested to know what you believe the Laws project was all about?

  • Alex Macfie 22nd Apr '16 - 8:26am

    If we do bounce back to 40–50 MPs at the next election, it will be because we will have moved away from the Clegg-Laws era in which being in government at Westminster was everything and campaigning didn’t matter.

  • David Evans 22nd Apr '16 - 9:41am

    Everyone knows that the years in coalition were a disaster for the future of Liberal Democracy. Even those so blinded by the illusion of power had it pointed out to them by the public year after year in local, Scottish and Welsh and European elections. However what is clear is that the Nick Clegg generation did not regard the hard work of the previous 50 years as a legacy to be built on so that later generations could also use it, but instead saw it as a opportunity to spend, spend, spend on whatever personally took their fancy.

    Instead of building bridges in order to benefit the wisdom of the rest of the party, barricades were put up, and slogans developed to demean those with experience such as “We are engaged in grown up government.” Advisors with no experience of real politics were appointed to posts way beyond their competence and the pretence of “getting on with government” was developed.

    In reality it was the Conservatives who were pulling the strings, and with a few honourable exceptions we were simply stoking the boilers in Conservative directed ministries. It may protect the egos of a few at the top to pretend that this was all worth it, but the real question this does not explain, is the things they did to stop the party from turning away from the abyss. Whether it was the deliberately named “Shirley Williams motion” which just managed to head off the revolt at Gateshead over the NHS reforms in 2011, the ignoring of conference over secret courts or the continuous production of dodgy statistics showing we could save lots of seats if only MPs held firm and did not remove Nick, a lot went on in the background that we need to learn from so we never let it happen again.

    However what is most important is what do we do now to get over to the public that the behaviour of our party in the five years of coalition was the aberration and that the vast majority of the party still hold to the values that led people to trust us over the previous 50 years. Sadly, at his conference as leader, Tim’s comment “You know, there are those that would like me to take this opportunity to distance myself from the past five years, to say it was all some dreadful mistake, to say: “I disagree with Nick.” But I don’t. So I won’t.” may prove to be the biggest mistake he ever made.

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 22nd Apr '16 - 1:01pm

    At the end of his book, Laws engages in some interesting counter-factuals about what might have happened in different circumstances, including staying in opposition, a confidence and supply arrangement, a “rainbow” coalition, or just behaving differently in government.

    The conclusion he comes to is that the coalition was probably worst for the party in terms of 2015 results, but that whatever route we took was always going to result in a fairly significant loss of seats, either in a later election in 2010, or in 2014/5. The particularly big factor in that is Scotland, and the SNP’s rise there would almost certainly been as drastic whatever we did, which had the double-edged effect of denying us seats in Scotland and scaring our voters in the south-west into voting Tory.

  • What Peter Watson said

    “the problem was that Lib Dems in government did not present themselves as a moderating influence, a reluctant partner, an independent voice, etc. If Lib Dems had demonstrated that they were standing up for the groups you mention, that they dissented from some of the policies that they had to permit, then the public might have had a different opinion of the party. Perhaps it was a misguided commitment to collective responsibility, perhaps it was a fear that Lib Dems would not receive credit for any economic recovery; either way, the party’s leaders threw away the support of those who put them into government.”

    and what Nick Thornsby said: “the SNP’s rise would almost certainly been as drastic whatever we did, which had the double-edged effect of denying us seats in Scotland and scaring our voters in the south-west into voting Tory.”

    Not just the South West, also South West London, speaking from experience.

  • Can we please knock this idea that enough Lib Dem voters switched to the Tories to swing the election in their favour in the South. The simple reality is that virtually all the Lib Dem vote went everywhere except the Tories, who’s vote was actually virtually the same as it was in 2010 and this mean that in seats the Lib Dems victory went to whoever was the in the second place position. There was no big swing to the Tories. It was a default win in most seats. This is important because one of the things that is standing in the way of getting seats back is the refusal to admit the real problem was a perceived swing to the Right. Instead of theorising, look what actually happened. The Lib Dem vote was not scared by the SNP or Miliband or The Greens or frankly even UKIP. Many more former Lib Dem voters voted for these parties than for the Conservatives. The vote simply split enough in enough seats to give Cameron an edge. This is a government formed on a small majority, not a landslide victory or masses of popular support.

  • Paul Holmes 22nd Apr '16 - 1:57pm

    @Nick Thornsby: Even if you accept the self justifyng views of the architect of the Clegg project, wouldn’t you say that “a fairly significant loss of seats” would have been preferable to near electoral annhilation?

  • Malcolm Todd 22nd Apr '16 - 3:28pm

    “Laws, like many Liberal Democrats, paid a heavy price for his role in the coalition”

    Really? Millionaire Laws, working for a pittance no doubt as Executive Chairman of the Centre Forum (among other jobs) and publishing his self-justifying memoir to fawning reviews, paid a heavy price? I’m sure he would rather still be an MP and a minister, but let’s not kid ourselves that he’s in any meaningful sense suffered for his role in the destruction of the Liberal Democrats.

  • Well, yesterday morning I was given to understand that a short but polite comment from me would trigger off a very negative set of posts and would not be allowed.

    King Canute comes to mind.

  • Adrian Sanders 22nd Apr '16 - 4:17pm

    “our voters in the south-west into voting Tory.” No, no, no, this is not what happened. Firstly there was no great swing to the Tories – 500 votes in my seat while I lost over 7,000. Our voters mostly stayed loyal. It was tactical voters who deserted us for Ukip, Labour and the Greens, not the Tories. Why? Because we betrayed them and gave them nothing (such as a PR voting system) in return. To start regaining their trust in the seats we have to win back we need to apologise for this betrayal and give a promise not to enter any coalition negotiations with anyone unless they concede PR to be on the statute book within the first year and no referendum. Up front, understood and consistent with our reform agenda.

  • Stevan Rose 22nd Apr '16 - 9:36pm

    Our tactical voters switched to UKIP? Sounds unlikely to me. Also promising PR when that referendum was soundly lost doesn’t sound like a vote winner. I agree though on the betrayal and trust issues. And for that reason I doubt there will be any coalition opportunities for another generation. We had it, we blew it. Our future lies in what happens as Labour rips itself apart over Corbyn, and the Tories rip themselves apart post-EU referendum. Lib Dems, the only party without major splits. Some might cruelly suggest there are not enough of us left to split though.

  • Denis Mollison 22nd Apr '16 - 10:30pm

    Nick Thornsby –
    “whatever route we took was always going to result in a fairly significant loss of seats”
    … “The particularly big factor in that is Scotland, and the SNP’s rise there would almost certainly [have] been as drastic whatever we did, … ”

    No. Our first “significant loss of seats” was in 2011, when we lost more than 2/3 of our seats in the Scottish Parliament, under a proportional system. This was because of the particular route we took – not just coalition with the Tories, but tuition fees / NHS / education / austerity – and it’s not credible to say we would have done as badly under the alternatives to the coalition path we took. The SNP’s rise was greatly helped by our collapse; to say that it would have been as great “whatever we did” is simply not credible.

    It was particularly galling for us in Scotland because the tuition fees / NHS / education betrayals did not affect Scotland, so we were being trashed simply by association.

  • Well, in Twickenham, one certainly heard the Tory ‘vote Lib Dem, get SNP pulling Miliband’s strings’ message played right back on the doorstep. And no wonder: I, a Lib Dem activist, got three pieces of direct mail plus leaflets tellkng me this; and there were billboards, too. Our vote went down by 16%; the Tories up by 7%, so it certainly looks as though there was some direct switching here at least. This graphic – interested if it has been superceded/discredited – seems to show that while our 2010 vote went in many directions, the Tories were the second biggest beneficiary.

  • @ David I write as someone based in Scotland who is thoroughly fed up with south of England ‘fear the SNP ‘ tactics used by the Conservatives (and also by admission by such Clegg acolytes as Joe Otten in Sheffield Hallam).

    What your interesting graphic actually shows is that we lost TWICE as many (10) to parties seen to be to the left (Labour,Green, and SNP) as to the right (5) (Conservative and UKIP).

    The rejoinder is we lost a lot of our traditional radical base , fed up with what was perceived as selling out in the Coalition.

    The dire position of the Lib Dems today is self inflicted by those in charge between 2010 to 2015. The Swiss Navy has a lot of Admirals (writing their lucrative (?) memoirs and giving £ 35,000 speeches) …….. but not many ships still afloat.

  • Actually, it is quite easy to accuse Laws of “shying away from the impact that coalition had on the party” as that is exactly what he does. Liberal Democrats have been asking asking “was it worth it” ever since the betrayal over tuition fees. Laws conclusion doesn’t come as a surprise, he did nothing wrong, it was all worth it, anyone who would have done anything differently is an idiot and he’s off now.

    Basically what comes across is Frank Spencer in government – Laws in constantly surprised and bewildered by Osborne and Cameron who only seem to be interested in winning elections, something that is never really on Laws radar.

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 25th Apr '16 - 3:16pm

    David – that’s right. And if one looks at the Tory-LD marginals, the fairly consistent pattern is one of loss of support to basically every party, but in a number of cases the increase in the Tory vote was greater than the margin that the LD candidate would have needed to win. See the second table here:

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