Days in May

For five days after the 2010 election, no-one knew who would become Prime Minister and form the next government. The electorate had made its choice of MPs. But it had given no leader a majority… The decision on who would become Prime Minister depended on deals and compromises and some quite unexpected choices.

It now seems certain that no party will have a majority on May 8th, but this time we all are expecting the unexpected.You’d have thought we might have learned something from last time – but despite a few red lines being bandied around in the last few days, we’ve not been told what commitments might be bargained away. It’s too hard to guess what the outcome of such a close contest will be – not just in the distribution of seats but also what kind of a deal (coalition, confidence and supply, etc.) might be made between which parties.  The parties themselves, though, will have wargamed a variety of scenarios as well as conducting a thorough post-mortem on the last set of coalition negotiations.

I read a couple of insider accounts of those: 5 Days in May, by Lord Andrew Adonis, member of Labour’s negotiating team, and 22 Days in May, by David Laws, member of the LibDem negotiating team. As you might expect, these two friends offer differing perspectives on these events, but it is instructive to look at where they do actually agree. In particular, these were things that surprised me:

Parliamentary arithmetic outweighed political alignment

I’d not really imagined the LibDems would support a Conservative-led government (despite numerous collaborations with the Tories in local government). But to be fair to Nick Clegg (not something I say very often) he’d signalled well in advance that he’d talk to the party with the most seats, unlike his predecessors who would have aimed to join a progressive government as long as the parliamentary arithmetic allowed it.

As it happened, the numbers were borderline:

“Chris (Huhne) and Paddy (Ashdown) had come to the conclusion that a Lib–Lab deal was a more serious prospect than had previously been considered. This was because although the two parties could not command a majority of MPs in the House of Commons, they did have a clear majority over the Conservatives.”

– David Laws, 22 Days in May

Clegg had come up with his doctrine that stated the party with the most seats and votes should have the first chance to form a government.


“There is no such constitutional convention; nor does this necessarily happen in Continental countries with coalitions.”

– Andrew Adonis, 5 Day in May


“…although there would be questions about the ‘legitimacy’ of any arrangement that kept a defeated Labour Party in power, the plain fact was that a Lib–Lab arrangement would represent some 52% of the electorate, against the 36% secured by the Conservatives on 6 May”

– David Laws, 22 Days in May

So why else might Clegg abandon what Laws calls Paddy Ashdown’s “great dream of a realignment of the left?” Adonis has his own suggestion:

“Why did Clegg turn Right? Because, on the big economic questions, he is on the Right, not the Left; and so too is David Laws, his chief strategist.”

– Andrew Adonis, 5 Day in May

Either way, having the numbers mattered (Laws keeps repeating the phrase ‘stable government’ like a mantra). Adonis says:

“I believed at the time – and still believe – that a Lib-Lab coalition was viable in May 2010.”

– Andrew Adonis, 5 Day in May

But he acknowledges that this was “against the conventional wisdom that most of the political players sought to establish”. That’s even those who didn’t swallow the unconstitutional Clegg doctrine.

The sales technique mattered

One of the recurring themes is the narratives around the 5 days is that the Labour team were under-prepared, even if that’s sometimes been overplayed,.

“It has been suggested by Ed Balls and others that the Labour team came to the meeting with us with little preparation and no negotiating strategy. Indeed, he made clear on Nick Robinson’s BBC documentary, that his ‘preparation’ for the first meeting was a brief discussion with Peter Mandelson over a coffee just before we met. But, in fact, Labour did table a set of proposals which were presented as the basis for an agreement.”

– David Laws, 22 Days in May

But what is clear is that the Tories had prepared tirelessly. That’s perhaps unsurprising. What I hadn’t expected was how flattered and impressed the LibDem team would be by their disciplined and focused sales techniques.

“…this was a Conservative team that was not only very senior, and which clearly had the full confidence of David Cameron, but which also turned out to be able to engage in a sensible, mature and respectful way with our team.”

– David Laws, 22 Days in May

Laws, at least, was charmed by Osborne:

“George was bright, sharp and amusing, with a mischievous sense of humour. He also has an extraordinary strategic and tactical understanding of British politics”

– David Laws, 22 Days in May

Within the Labour party there wasn’t even consensus on whether coalition was a good idea.

“The Labour Party was clearly split, and many senior figures were opposed to a coalition – even those on their own negotiating team.”

– David Laws, 22 Days in May

“While we were splintering, the Tories were the model of public unity. Not a single Tory right-winger had been on the attack. Their side was desperate for power; too many on ours were desperate to give it up..”

– Andrew Adonis, 5 Day in May

Labour were demoralised – but also (shock horror) there were democratic discussions taking place within the party. Some of which, perhaps, they were too honest about…

“Ed Balls intervened to say: ‘Look, even AV would not be at all straightforward. In fairness, the Chief Whip thinks it could be difficult to get the AV referendum through. Many of our colleagues are opposed to it. It cannot be guaranteed.’”

– David Laws, 22 Days in May

Labour were open about whether there would be support within their party for this key LibDem policy. By contrast the Conservatives happily gave assurances on Lords reform and wrote it into the coalition agreement. But the truth was the LibDems were sold a pup. Neither party could guarantee the constitutional reforms the LibDems sought but only one side said so. Laws repeatedly remarks on how he was impressed by professionalism, courtesy and charm among the Conservative team. He is deeply unimpressed by the body language and demeanour of the Labour team, excepting his friend Andrew Adonis – and acknowledges grudgingly Ed Miliband’s courtesy. Parliamentary arithmetic aside, if both sides had offered the same policy concession, it’s clear which the LibDem team would have bought from…

The LibDems were to present their coalition proposals for ratification within their party. But democracy is complicated, and it made things simpler for them if the other side could be sufficiently autocratic to make an offer without consultation. In the Tory party, whose internal democratic processes are relatively new and still under-developed by comparison to other political parties, they found that simplicity.

On a side note, while we’re on the salesmanship in the dealmaking, there’s comparatively little in Laws book on whether the LibDems actually sought more senior cabinet roles than those they settled for (he rationalises the choices while he describes waiting by the phone). But Adonis expected them to get at least four leading roles in defence/international development, in health/education/transport/work and pensions/communities/culture and in energy/agriculture.

“Clegg secured almost none of these major posts in his coalition negotiations with Cameron. It is not even clear that he asked for them, although if he did ask and was refused then he badly underplayed his hand. (This will be a significant point of interest in the memoirs to come.)”

– Andrew Adonis, 5 Day in May

They managed to get only energy and business.

“They secured no Cabinet post whatever in two of the three key government sectors of international policy and public services/welfare, where there are ten departments.”

“…the Lib Dems went into government but not into coalition. They handed virtually all the posts that mattered to the Conservatives, and they also – partly in consequence – handed almost all the policy of the government to the Conservatives too.”

– Andrew Adonis, 5 Day in May

The policy priorities were secret – and surprising

What mattered most, though, were the policies that would be included in whatever final deal was struck. There would have to be compromises, no party could hope to deliver its whole manifesto. But how would they decide what would get ditched? Preparations on these had started early, and in secret.

“The team had been secretly established at the end of 2009. It was done without great fanfare or consultation to avoid the party becoming distracted by post-election game playing.”

– David Laws, 22 Days in May

But when they started talking to the other parties, the LibDems weren’t saying the same things they’d said to the electorate. On what had been presented to voters as the most important issue in the election – the economy – they’d had a rethink.

“We…made clear before the election that we did not believe that total government spending should be cut in 2010, because we were concerned not to depress economic activity before it was clear that a recovery had begun.”

“In preparing our manifesto in late 2009 and early 2010, we were comfortable with our analysis and proposals on the deficit, but by April and May we began to realise that two developments might cause us to have to revisit our plans.”

– David Laws, 22 Days in May

The election was on May 6. The campaign was in April. The LibDems had changed their mind on a fundamental – perhaps the fundamental issue of the election. Did they tell the electorate about it?

Laws doesn’t publish, but Adonis does, a document tabled by the LibDems in which they make the ‘Osborne plan’ one of their key demands.

“…in this paper there is a commitment to ‘the eradication of the structural deficit within a responsible timescale’, which, Laws explained in our meetings, would need to be a timescale significantly shorter than envisaged either by Labour or the Lib Dems in their election manifestos.”

– Andrew Adonis, 5 Days in May

Laws also reveals that Osborne expected to discuss economic policy with Vince Cable; the negotiating team blocked this. The Labour team expected Darling to meet Cable, Adonis says the LibDems stalled and it never happened.

More infamously, the LibDems decided to ditch their high profile pledge to scrap tuition fees.

“…it was now clear, with the huge spending cuts that would be required under any government, that abolishing tuition fees without creating some other revenue stream would not be realistic.”

– David Laws, 22 Days in May

Here, it’s also interesting to note how Laws, as a member of the negotiating team, weighs agreed party policy against his own personal opinion.

“I felt that our own policy on abolishing tuition fees was simply not the right priority in the current economic environment”

– David Laws, 22 Days in May

Despite this, the LibDems demanded that Labour cap fees, and would not be shifted on raising them. Then agreed to tripling fees.

Ultimately four key policy areas that emerged in the coalition agreement as LibDem concessions were:

  • Pupil premium (a success)
  • Tax allowance raised (such a success, despite not being especially progressive, that the Tories have nicked the policy)
  • Electoral reform (the referendum on AV, badly timed, was lost – Labour had promised AV immediately with a referendum on STV)
  • Lords reform (blocked by the Tories who couldn’t/didn’t deliver the votes, the reason Laws and other cited against a progressive coalition)

That the last two became key pillars of the coalition agreement isn’t especially surprising, as they were long standing LibDem policies (though, of course, neither electoral or lords reform have actually been achieved). But I think many people, myself included, felt that the LibDems had not been honest with the electorate that the first two would be more important to them than, say, their high profile pledge on tuition fees or their (previous) highly vocal opposition to in-year cuts during 2010.

The cost of coalition

One of the factors that Laws considered was proving that coalition could work. Clegg has made much of a different kind of politics. Electoral reform effectively ends majority government, and it was important to demonstrate an alternative that could be stable and last five years. Both Laws and Adonis recognise that the coalition could and would do this. In doing so, new ground was broken… was a model established for future elections?

The cost for the LibDems has been high.

  • A third of members left between 2010 and 2013
  • Polls suggest they will do well if their Westminster representation is only halved next week
  • They are very unlikely to be the third party, being overtaken by the SNP

This last point is particularly significant – for if the LibDems had consoled themselves that in the event of losing so many seats, they’d still be kingmakers, that no longer looks a likely prospect.

Those considering coalitions in the future may bear this in mind…

I’m not quite sure that’s fair. I think the LibDems misfortunes are not due to their going into coalition. Rather, they are suffering because

  • Their dishonesty in opposing cuts and tuition fee rises during the election campaign, then supporting them in government
  • Failure to significantly shape the government (particularly with Clegg taking a title rather than a department)
  • Being rushed (unnecessarily) into a poor coalition deal

It’s this last point that I think party leaders would do well to bear in mind in a week’s time. The campaign may have been long and closely fought, but it’s in the dealmaking that follows the real story of the next five years will be decided. That’s where the real hard work will take place and each concession will undoubtedly have its electoral cost in 2020 – if not before.

I don’t envy any of them the task that lies ahead…


About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See for more...

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