The Curse Of Power

The inside story of the Lib Dems in the coalition government is a brave attempt to explain where it all went wrong

Books


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.

Ever since the late 1990s, when Paddy Ashdown came close to a deal that would have put Liberal Democrats in Tony Blair’s cabinet, senior Liberal Democrats were under no illusions that, whoever they shared power with, coalition — the only realistic way for a party of their size to do anything — would not go down well with their supporters. In a 1998 memo to Ashdown, Chris (now Lord) Rennard warned: “The loss of our independence and acceptance of collective responsibility will hit us hard in the polls . . . this is as much a fact in my political judgment as Newton’s laws of physics.” Rennard argued that such a loss would be acceptable in exchange for “proportional representation and with it permanent influence”. 

As it would have been in the 1990s, so it was in 2010. That calculation, rather than principled opposition to First Past the Post, explained why electoral reform was such a high priority for the Lib Dems during coalition negotiations. Sharing power with the Conservatives meant “we could lose up to half of our vote”, writes Laws. “We had to protect against that by reforming the voting system so that we secured fairer representation for each vote gained.” Unfortunately for Laws and his colleagues, Oliver Letwin, one of the Conservative coalition negotiators, was right when he said: “We will deliver the referendum [on Alternative Vote versus First Past the Post] exactly as promised. And then we will beat the hell out of you in the vote!”  

After defeat in that referendum, just a year into the government, the fate of the party was, by its own logic, largely sealed. A loss of seats seemed certain — but Clegg and Co failed to limit that damage. Breaking their promise to vote against any rise in tuition fees certainly angered huge swathes of their supporters. Though Laws stands by the increased fees, pointing out that social mobility is not served by subsidising middle-class degrees, the real mistake was the promise, not its breach.

The broader problem was, according to Laws, that the Lib Dems were “too Lib Demmy”. They were not as ruthless as their Conservative colleagues, who fought for — and won — the lion’s share of the credit for the things the coalition got right.

Refreshingly, Coalition is mostly free from the score-settling that can dominate political memoirs. Vince Cable, a thorn in the side not just of Clegg but the government in which Cable himself served for the full five years, is treated more respectfully than he might have been. There is more poison in Laws’s pen when he writes of Chris Huhne. On the morning Huhne entered a guilty plea in the trial that would end his political career — after publicly and privately insisting that he had done nothing wrong—he is recorded as having said to a Lib Dem press officer there to offer support: “In my life to date I have had three very successful careers — in journalism, in business and in politics. I guess today will mark the beginning of my fourth successful career.”

Of more relevance in this parliament are Laws’s and Clegg’s reflections on the senior Conservatives they worked so closely with. Osborne is described by Laws as “amusing, self-deprecating, strategic, focusing on the long-term and not just the short-term challenges and — of course — brutally political. He is a man who understands in great detail his political opponents — their strengths and their weaknesses.” One revelation to emerge from Coalition is that at Osborne’s weakest moment, in the aftermath of the 2012 “omnishambles” budget, he came to Laws with the offer of a “coupon” election in which Conservatives and Lib Dems would make way for one another in key seats. The offer is a reminder of just how unlikely a Conservative majority looked a few years before it was won. How relieved Osborne must now be that Laws refused the offer.

Laws found life in Michael Gove’s Department for Education a cocktail of exasperation and exhilaration. He recounts a meeting in which Dominic Cummings, Gove’s notoriously abrasive special adviser, told a room full of male civil servants: “When I first came to this department in 2011, I said we should sack half of the staff. I was told it would be impossible and the department would collapse. Well, we have done it, and who actually noticed? Now I think we need to go even further. There are far too many white men in their middle fifties . . . who are no good. . . . They should be sacked and replaced by young women in their twenties and thirties.”

When Laws lodged his objection to Gove’s insistence that all GCSE English students read a 19th-century novel, the response read: “The Secretary of State insists on this prescription because the 19th century represents the most important period for the novel as a cultural form . . . A student of English literature who hasn’t studied a 19th-century novel is like a student of maths who hasn’t studied multiplication.”

Laws and Gove eventually found common ground on reversing dumbing down. Laws was persuaded there was work to do by a question in a GCSE Physical Education paper that asked: “Which of the following sports would you be likely to engage in if you were an introvert? A. Cheerleader;  B. Volleyball; C. Cricket; D. Cross-Country Runner.”

Laws thought he’d be relieved when Gove was moved from the Department of Education but he found, to his surprise, that he missed his old boss: “In a Conservative party that was too often the defender of the interests of those who benefited from the status quo, here was a truly radical advocate of higher standards for all and greater equality of opportunity. Here was a man who quite genuinely wanted to break Britain’s class-ridden society open to ‘outsiders’.”

The line in Coalition most relevant to our present political predicament is Nick Clegg’s assessment of the Prime Minister: “Cameron has a quicksilver mind and lots of emotional common sense . . . He ducks and weaves and always believes he can get himself out of a tight corner. One day he won’t.”