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

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage