Many insider accounts have already appeared of the events retold in David Laws's book. 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 who played a key and supportive role in the negotiations, despite having only very narrowly lost an at times tetchy leadership contest with Nick Clegg.
Laws's book brings out Huhne's close involvement in shaping the party's approach to a hung Parliament and how he persuaded many others of the virtues of his party agreeing a coalition rather than 'confidence and supply' arrangement. 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 given the election result.
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.
on 20 May 2011
David Laws' 22 Days in May is an engrossing read. It's the first true insider story of an era defining event, the creation of a full coalition in the UK, the story of the birth of a government written by someone who witnessed and whelped it. A slight let down is that it's author knows it. No page goes by without David Laws feeling the full weight of history bearing down upon him. "I knew" becomes the book's cliche (surely, "I know now" ?) No sentence is uttered without the significance that he can attach to it in hindsight. Even a pub gets upgraded, bemusingly, to a restaurant (Laws has visions of `Loose Box', in London, inserting a blue plaque where he once sat, perhaps?).
The one area where Laws might, in truth, claim credit for far-sightedness is in the book's treatment of Chris Huhne. Upon publication, reviews cited Law's description of Huhne's commitment to full coalition with the Conservatives as casting fresh, positive light on this defeated leadership candidate. Now, 12 months on, with Huhne fighting (a) to appeal to disaffected LibDems as their post-coalition leader, and (b) to avoid the DVLA, Law's intent in eulogizing Huhne may be seen very differently: as an attempt to tie him firmly to the mast of Nick Clegg and coalition.
I'd recommend the accounts of the negotiations between the parties to anyone, within or outwith the Westminster bubble. Only the true politicos will stick around for the appendices (the various drafts of agreements between the major parties). Unlike most accounts of political events, there aren't pages and pages that a reader will simply skim through - Laws' prose might not be great, but enough is happening that you don't mind much, and his habit of referring to just about every party monkey or constituency volunteer with the platitude "hard working" is wearing but seems to come from a well meant place (and is better than not mentioning these foot soldiers at all). The accounts of the meetings between the Lib Dem teams and, respectively, the Conservatives then Labour, give a real insight into conducting negotiations - planning, conducting, and debriefing. It's fascinating, and educational, stuff.
Other reviews of the book have criticised the pace of the ending, where the account of Laws' resignation is rattled through in just one page, with copies of his resignation letter and Cameron's reply appended. In fact, the whole experience of office and resignation is recounted so quickly that one wonders just when the cover photo, of Laws and Cameron together at the Cabinet table, was taken. But this pace is no bad thing, by page 259 - the resignation - the reader is desperate for a respite, but with the end so tantalisingly close, plowing on into the wee small hours. Events get faster, faster, faster, until boom.
Much, I suppose, like Laws' 22 days themselves.
on 21 April 2015
A review on the making of the British coalition government in the twenty-first century, with many firsts: a first with Liberals since MacDonald's National Government of 1931, written by the first Lib Dem Chief Secretary of the Treasury to hold office in the Treasury since Sir John Simon, and the shortest-lived holder of a Cabinet Office in 200 years, might have been an interesting scoop when it was first published in 2010. At second sight, David Laws, MP for Yeovil, never intended writing this as a short term measure to the soothe the pain and lost opportunities on the back benches, but as a record of the historic noble deed which his party had achieved, and which his fully-occupied Lib Dem colleagues in government would not be able to write for a very long time.
In brief, it is a direct personal short-term extended day-by-day diary account from election day by one of the five Lib Dem protagonists: consisting of party leader Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, Chris Huhne, and Andrew Stunell, who laboured tiresomely for hours face to face with their direct opposites in Cameron's Conservative and Brown's Labour parties, to thrash out what could have been unsolvable, immediately after the inconclusive results of the General Election on May 6th, 2010, when the over excited European markets were looking anxious in the wake of meltdown in Greece, the fear of spread throughout Southern Europe, and now with indecision, possible dangers looming for Britain. It would have been very easy and pure to wave the party flag, return to opposition benches, and risk a second damaging election in the autumn, rather than put the nation (and for the Lib Dems, might I add, Europe) first.
It should be read as a piece of planning by a committed, balanced team of democratic idealists, who wished to push Britain further forward along the road of modern European democracy, a dream which their seniors Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, and Paddy Ashdown had been hoodwinked by Tony Blair in the 1990s with rosy promises of alliances, radical progressive policies, to keep out the wicked Tories, only to be overlooked for another generation after the crushing electoral victories in 1997 and 2001. Consequently, as the author underlines, it proved to be the end product of a long and medium-term project in a period of financial doom which only arose because all the main parties since 2005 had new leaders who were forced to explore new political experiments and directions.
David Laws, and his three colleagues felt that Labour - in particular the two Eds (Balls and Miliband) and Harriet Harman among the negotiators, but also Chancellor Darling and Straw had no desire for a true working coalition. After 13 years in government they were tired, eager to return to tribal opposition politics, and it is quite false when they later say that the Lib Dems had an un-written understanding with the Conservatives, even if Clegg admitted finding no doors left locked by David Cameron unlike the sourface outgoing Premier Gordon Brown. Indeed, strangely both working parties across the table were willing to tear up the worst policies of each party's manifestos, and go ahead solely with the best of both political ideas, and when the vote was made to go into government with the hated Tories none of the leading Lib Dems objected despite the fact that the seniors with SDP roots, were disappointed that the winds of change had not swept them back closer to former friends on the left. Furthermore, when Laws joined the Treasury and until his Commons' speech and resignation on May 28th he always found Chancellor, Osborne, warm, amicable and helpful, and he had no difficulty in urging his less-willing, hard nosed ministerial colleagues to make the first, £6bn, of the many necessary economies - even with a smile.
Re-reading this work in the middle of another election, in 2015, would also be an attempt to let unhappy, disbelieving past young voters that contrary to myths, and the continual apologies made by Clegg, the Lib Dems had never turned their backs on their promise to end student fees during the negotiations; indeed, one of the decisions taken during the talks was to allow Lib Dems, such as Laws himself who thought it nuts, to abstain when the first votes were debated in December 2010.
Instead, the embittered Lib Dems, should be reminded, as Laws repeats that ultimately what cemented the coalition was the promise of a referendum for AV in exchange for the revision of the constituency boundaries which favours Labour. So, when the Conservative apparatus was switched on in full against AV, during the Referendum in April 2011, the real Tories came onto the scene with a crushing no as the older Liberals expected, and only then did the Lib Dems in parliament, and their activists in the country, started roaring time, reverting to tribal type against Cameron and the Tories, showing their hostile independence in public both in and out of their love-child coalition. The coalition hobbled on, more due to the full term parliament Act, producing social, economic, educational and health measures, but not because the parties could bear the sight of each other. Or was it what the journalists let us think?
It was in the author's final days when he received an interesting note left by his Labour predecessor, Liam Byrne, hinting winning the election was a heavy booby prize, because Labour was handing over the economy in a much worst state than had previously been imagined, with Brown and Darling mounting a "scorched earth" policy, willingly directing large amounts of money to Labour areas away from the more productive South East before the new lot could stop the unequal rot. It was as if the writing was clearly on the wall, and it was Gordon Brown's last paternalist going away gift to the trusting armies in the North, and north of the border, still not re-energised as after the Independence Referendum of September 2014.
Thus, the fact that first he, and then his successor, Danny Alexander, carried on for five years with a fair amount of success, is an unforgettable pleasing legacy for members of the two quarrelsome Tweedledum-Tweedledee parties and the civil servants in Whitehall. It was a proof that when there is a need, there is a way even in a coalition-free country, this side of the Channel, and the Lib Dems will always love to remind all of this achievement.
Is Clegg honest and right in saying that that the Lib Dem "policies" made the Conservatives more human and less nasty is difficult to conclude when reading Laws, just as it is questionable that working close with Osborne, Hague, and Gove transformed some Lib Dems in government into flag-waving true blues? Love them or not, Cameron and Osborne, will continue to be penned as exclusives, as the posh-twins. The green Huhne, the aging tetchy Cable, the suave, professional reed-haired Alexander, even the sweet, Europhile Clegg, all remained committed Lib Dems through and through.
This small book, with the grinning faces on the cover of two party leaders, one Prime Minister, the other Deputy Prime Minister, on their first day together in government, in the rose garden, in May 2010, is a memorable occasion to those five days carried on behind the scenes. Will David Laws, and his gallant workaholic partners receive their deserved laurels a second time, the answer is not blowing or thundering in the wind? A brilliant, balanced read, worthy for all true Brits whatever your political beliefs - and for those who choose not to hold on to Britain it is a tale that there is much life in the old dog.
History, however, responds differently, because it won't necessary be the same the next time. Numbers may still be in question, but so will trust. Will they, won't they?
And, whether you agree with Nick (as Brown did last time), Cameron or Miliband this time, in May 2015, there also stands a smart blonde dame, who is not standing, and making many fearsome waves across the UK, that maybe the original Iron Lady's comment, "You ain't seen nothing yet!", is still lurking round the corner.
on 21 January 2011
For three weeks, David Laws was at the heart of British politics during perhaps the most dramatic period it has seen since World War II. Here, he tells the story of his part in the aftermath of the 2010 general election: the negotiations between the parties and the formation of Britain's first coalition government in decades.
As he makes clear, it was an outcome that few thought possible, never mind likely. For years, many in Laws' party - the Lib Dems - had looked to Labour as their natural allies. Their policy differences with the Conservatives were substantial, including apparent yawning chasms on electoral reform and Europe, either of which could have been a deal-breaker. And yet it happened. His book explains very clearly how and why.
Two-thirds of it covers the period from election day to the first meeting of the new government and this really is the heart of the book. It's also the best-written, feeling more like a political thriller than a documentary record. It's filled with direct quotes - taken from his own notes, or those of others - and he takes the reader right into the action (and it's surprising the extent to which eight or ten politicians talking round a table does feel like action).
The pacing really is excellent, switching expertly between the intensity of the talks, the narrative of the wider events, background stories of the key characters or relevant history, and considered analysis of what was going on. Laws also has a fine eye for detail and a dry, understated, wit, both of which help to lighten the tone and provide for some surprising laughs.
The rest of the book falls into three sections: Laws' time as a minister; an essay on the lessons of putting the coalition together and its prospects for the future; and a set of appendices, containing the various documents the three parties tabled, some of which were previously unpublished.
Of these, the coverage of Laws' ministerial career is the weakest. The book then reads more like a diary: detail and dialogue become far sparser and the style is more one of what he did than how it happened. There's the impression that these days weren't in the first draft and the publisher persuaded him to add them. Of particular note is that he adds nothing to the very few details already known about his resignation. By contrast, the essay is interesting enough - though by its nature an astute reader will have picked up the main points for him- or herself - and the appendices are a useful and important collection, though they weren't written for the reader's enjoyment!
This isn't the definitive or first telling of how the coalition came to be. As Laws makes clear, it is very much from his perspective, so necessarily the talks between the party leaders receive very little attention. Likewise, the internal discussions within Labour and the Conservatives are referenced only indirectly. But Laws makes all this clear at the start and it should be accepted as such. What it is is a very readable, informative and enjoyable account of what will probably come to be seen as a critically important week in Britain's politics.