5 Days In May by Andrew Adonis: A raw battle for power

Andrew Adonis, one of the five Labour figures present throughout the ill-fated talks with the Lib Dems, has written a West Wing-style thriller that recreates what he calls “a raw battle for power to decide who would govern and which big policies would win

5 Days In May
Andrew Adonis
Biteback, £12.99, 179pp

As the title of Andrew Adonis’s book reminds us, Britain is a country in which parliament spent the equivalent of a month debating whether or not to ban fox hunting but in which a handful of sleep-deprived men spent just five days forming a government. The haste with which the coalition was assembled may not have made for good administration but it has made for good journalism. Adonis, one of the five Labour figures present throughout the ill-fated talks with the Lib Dems, has written a West Wing-style thriller that recreates what he calls “a raw battle for power to decide who would govern and which big policies would win or lose”.

The book opens on the morning of the general election, with Gordon Brown, invigorated by the prospect of a hung parliament, declaring, “We’ve got to stop Cameron and the media simply calling it for the Tories . . . How do we get it out there that even if they are the largest party, but there’s no majority, they can’t just walk into Downing Street and demand the keys?” In the blow-by-blow account that follows, the most striking thing is the extent to which Labour assumed that the Lib Dems, as fellow “progressives”, would ultimately side with them over the Tories.

After the first, amiable conversation between Brown and Nick Clegg, Adonis is puzzled when Paddy Ashdown misleadingly briefs that Brown delivered “a diatribe, a rant” and “was threatening in his approach”. Aren’t these guys supposed to be our friends? It is only at the denouement of the talks that he realises that Clegg, committed to an ideological marriage with the Tories, has no intention of negotiating with Labour in good faith. The meetings between the two parties were a cynical attempt to extract better terms from the Tories and to fool the Lib Dem left into thinking that only Labour’s truculence prevented the formation of a centre-left alliance.

Despite campaigning on a platform of antiausterity, Clegg and his party reversed their stance even before commencing talks with the Conservatives. In a memorable tête-à-tête with Ed Balls, Chris Huhne asserts that immediate spending cuts are now justified since the depreciation of sterling has provided “a large, real, extra, stimulus to the economy”. It is not a judgement that has aged well. Adonis’s sardonic conclusion is that: “Clegg and [David] Laws did not lead their party into coalition with the Conservatives despite Osborne’s austerity but because of it.” In a notable act of self-criticism, he writes: “Social democrats – including ex-Liberal Democrats like me – failed to appreciate this at the time.” Not all on the left were so dewy-eyed about Clegg and his cohorts. As the New Statesman’s pre-election leader noted, “Members of the influential Orange Book faction inside the Lib Dems display a classical liberal suspicion of the state and have flirted with the idea of dismantling the National Health Service and reversing the increase in public spending seen under Labour.” It was those Orange Bookers who, in Charles Kennedy’s words, drove “a strategic coach and horses through the longnurtured ‘realignment of the centre-left’”.

As a long-standing believer in a “progressive coalition” and a Liberal Democrat member until 1995, Adonis felt this failure more keenly than most. In an important corrective to the received wisdom that “there was no alternative” to a Tory-Lib Dem coalition, he elegantly dismisses the alleged arithmetical and constitutional bars to a Lab-Lib pact. With the support of the nationalist parties (who would never allow themselves to be held responsible for the formation of a Tory government), he estimates that a Labour-Lib Dem coalition would have had a majority of around 30 and cites Willy Brandt’s SPD administration in Germany and the current Swedish government as proof that secondplaced parties can legitimately assume power. He scorns those who argued that Labour needed to “renew itself” in opposition: “To give up power voluntarily, because you are tired of government and it is all too difficult, is a betrayal of the people you serve.”

Now back in the Labour fold as an adviser to the party on industrial policy, Adonis says that the experience of the past three years has led him to abandon his belief in the superiority of coalitions to single-party government. While he hopes and expects the party to win a majority, he advises Ed Miliband to “prepare properly” for another hung parliament, noting: “Only the Conservatives did so in 2010.” It is advice the Labour leader would be wise to take. If history is any guide, he will not be in a position to govern alone after 2015. At no point in the past 80 years has an opposition party won an overall majority at the first time of trying, nor has one gone on to win power without achieving a poll lead of at least 20 points in the preceding parliament (Labour’s peak poll lead is 16 points and its vote share has been as low as 3 points in some recent surveys).

Adonis is too modest to say so but if parliament is again “hung”, one of Miliband’s first calls should be to this shrewd and profoundly decent man.

In Adonis's blow-by-blow account, the most striking thing is the extent to which Labour assumed the Lib Dems, as fellow “progressives”, would ultimately side with them. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

Getty
Show Hide image

Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”