In It Together by Matthew D'Ancona: The virus has proved treatable with doses of compromise and negotiation

This 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.

In It Together: the Inside Story of the Coalition Government
Matthew d’Ancona
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

David Cameron and Nick Clegg: an unholy alliance? Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge