In It Together: the Inside Story of the Coalition Government
Viking, 432pp, £25
David Cameron is the first British prime minister in history to have enshrined in law the date when he is to seek re-election – 7 May 2015 is the day stipulated in the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011. It’s a constitutional tweak of great political consequence. Cameron understood that his coalition with the Liberal Democrats would be spoiled by mistrust from the start if parliament could be dissolved by Downing Street whim, so he surrendered that old privilege.
Instead, mistrust crept in only gradually. Even then, the virus has proved treatable with doses of compromise and negotiation. Fever has been a symptom of media speculation about relations between the governing parties much more than is justified by the underlying health of their partnership.
In It Together, Matthew d’Ancona’s fluent narration of the first three years of coalition government, explains why the project has consistently failed to fail when most onlookers predicted it would. Prompt agreement on a fixed, five-year term was not a minor detail. It was George Osborne who, in d’Ancona’s account, grasped the need for legislative nuptials to reassure the Lib Dems of Tory constancy. From the junior partners’ point of view, a fixed-term contract helped support Nick Clegg’s assertion, made at a rose-fringed Downing Street press conference shortly after the election, that Britain was witnessing the formation not just of a new government, but of a “new politics”.
Clegg was half right. There was novelty in the sight of erstwhile enemies governing as if they were friends but the whole show was also powered by an ancient energy source – the competitive affinity between two men marshalling the complaisance that is bred at top public schools.
In It Together does not claim to be a book about class but the theme sneaks up on the story and, by the end, threatens to usurp politics as the main subject. The title refers to promises made by Cameron and Osborne that the pain of Budget austerity would be inflicted equitably across society. But the sincerity of the slogan has been imperilled constantly by public perception of a government staffed by Old Etonians and other toffs. The vanity-drenched portrait of Oxford University’s tailcoated Bullingdon Club haunts the Prime Minister and his Chancellor “like criminal mugshots follow Hollywood stars”, d’Ancona writes. “As austerity bit and the economic recovery stalled, the photographs did their brutal semiotic work.”
Cameron in particular comes across as acutely conscious of the political hazard posed by his background and yet oblivious to the way that this background informs his style of government. One of the most revealing chapters in the book describes the disillusionment of Steve Hilton, the Tory leader’s friend and adviser who co-authored his strategy for the “modernisation” of the party in opposition and who moved into Downing Street fizzing with ambition to refashion the entire apparatus of the state. Hilton was thwarted partly by his unfocused and immoderate temperament and partly by a civil service that treated imagination as a threat. Above all, he was dismayed to see his old friend Dave preferring the comforts of office to the confrontations of perpetual policy revolution. Hilton is the son of Hungarian immigrants and a devotee of the US west coast cult of innovation by creative disruption. He had thought he was part of a gang of radicals storming the establishment. He somehow failed to spot that they were, in reality, the establishment. When he realised, he quit No 10 for a job in California.
D’Ancona describes a tight social circle running the Tory side of the coalition – old friends, their wives, ex-girlfriends, all joining each other for holidays and dinner parties and sharing childcare, now all ministers or Downing Street staffers. He draws the contrast with the New Labour elite who took charge of the country in 1997. Tony Blair’s clan started life as a political project and only later evolved into a governing family before splitting into mafiosi tribes. Cameron’s was a clique before it thought of running the country. That makes it more affable than the Blairites but also lacking in purpose. The Cameroons had an easy ride to power before they had thought enough about what power should be for.
Many of the chapters in the story are structured around a skirmish between coalition parties or within them – constitutional reform; Europe; the NHS; benefit cuts. The political calculations of the central players are meticulously analysed, colourfully reported and often, thanks to d’Ancona’s lavish contacts book, brought to life with direct speech. Yet it is rare for points of principle to be the focus. There is much bartering and the occasional stab to the back but not much interrogation of motive. Everything hinges on the need to keep the coalition together and, on the Tory side, the imperative of manoeuvring into a position from which a majority might be winnable in 2015.
That isn’t a failure of d’Ancona’s prose, which manages the trick of seeming effortless with discreet ornament. The problem lies more with Cameron, Clegg and Osborne, whose reasons for wanting public office, beyond the thrill of it, are opaque. In that context, In It Together is frequently generous to the government. Some readers, especially those of a leftish disposition, will be irked by the way d’Ancona lavishes the benefit of the doubt on his subjects – above all, the Chancellor. However, given that politicians are usually despised in Britain, there is a corrective merit in heeding the view of a supportive insider striving to be dispassionate.
The problem is more acute as the story approaches the present day. Sources who were candid about the early years of coalition were clearly more reticent about coalition arguments (over acceptable levels of anti-immigration rhetoric, for instance) that remain unresolved. The vital sense of intimacy with power dims towards the end of the book.
There are still 20 months to go of this fixed-term parliament, which feels somehow longer than most. It is hard, reading In It Together, not to be struck by the number of things that have happened that seemed big at the time and already feel oddly distant: students storming the Conservative Party headquarters; the riots of summer 2011; the war in Libya. It was journalism one minute, history the next. D’Ancona’s book is a valiant attempt to straddle both genres but the story isn’t over yet. As a result, the product of his labour feels provisional; the unwritten postscript – to be continued.
Rafael Behr is the political editor of the New Statesman