The Curse Of Power
David Laws: Thorough and thoughtful (©ALEX FOLKES/FISHNIK.COM CC BY-ND 2.0)
Remember the Liberal Democrats? Not so long ago they were in government. Now there are just eight of them in the House of Commons. The rout that ousted 49 MPs was a conclusive judgment on the party’s five years in government, ruthlessly delivered by the electorate. As a result, the party’s decision to enter into coalition in 2010 is almost universally seen to have been disastrous for the party. Meanwhile, the achievements and shortcomings of the last government are, for better or for worse, seen as Conservative ones.
A year on from electoral meltdown, David Laws, former MP for Yeovil, has produced Coalition, an honest, thorough and thoughtful account of life at the heart of the last government, and an attempt to write his party back into British political history.
Laws’s defence of his party’s time in government is fought on two fronts. On one side, he is writing to win round left-wing Liberal Democrat supporters still angry at the decision to work with the Conservatives. The book’s epigraph is from Machiavelli: “The Prince who walks away from power walks away from the power to do good.” On the other, Coalition is a pitch to the country at large, demanding more credit for the work of the last government.
For Laws, the month of May 2010 began with the excitement of coalition negotiations and being made Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It ended in scandal after the Daily Telegraph revealed he had been using parliamentary expenses to pay rent to his partner — a clear breach of the rules. In Coalition, Laws says, somewhat naively, that “as the effect of my actions was to reduce my claims upon the taxpayer, I did not consider it at the time to be wrong”. In part the mistake arose because of his decision to keep his sexuality private “from my family, friends and colleagues”. He concludes: “There seemed no good moment to come out.”
But resignation did not mean wilderness. Laws remained a close ally and confidant of Nick Clegg — if not at the heart of the coalition, then at the centre of one of the parties in government. (Much of the detail that makes Coalition such a compelling account of the last government comes from access to diaries kept by Clegg, a debt which Laws acknowledges.) In 2012 he returned to government, simultaneously serving as Minister of State for Schools and a minister in the Cabinet Office, close to Clegg.
The question that looms over Coalition is “Where did it all go wrong?” For the Liberal Democrats, coalition was always a gamble. And, by most measures of political success, the gamble did not pay off.