What David Laws knows but won’t say
A draft Lib Dem document from May reveals that there was clear potential for a Lab-Lib coalition. So
It has been just six months since the general election and the creation of a coalition government that will profoundly change the way in which we live - and already we are being offered a jabber of competing interpretations of what happened during those five days of talks between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives and the Lib Dems and Labour. The febrile atmosphere of those thrilling five days in May, as Gordon Brown struggled forlornly to hold on to power in some form - in any form - is being recreated in a series of hastily composed books and TV documentaries, all of which offer no more than partial versions of the truth.
A historian, wrote Friedrich Schlegel, is a "prophet facing backwards". Well, no shortage of would-be prophets have emerged from the smoke of the coalition talks but so recent are the events about which they are writing that many of them are scarcely facing backwards at all. Or perhaps they are simply facing backwards into the future, unsure, uncertain.
From David Laws of the Lib Dems and Peter Mandelson of Labour, both of whom were inside the talks; to the reporters Adam Boulton and Nick Robinson, who were on the outside but granted, through their contacts, privileged access to the machinations inside the meeting rooms; and the little-known Conservative MP Rob Wilson, who, for his book 5 Days to Power, has spoken to many of the participants, we are being offered what amounts to a new kind of instant history. This is not the long view - events recollected in tranquillity and after due reflection. This is history as journalism; history as it is being written in the age of the internet, Twitter and the 24-hour rolling news channels.
Hide and seek
“There are no facts," wrote Nietzsche, "only interpretations." What he meant, I think, is that the meaning of an event cannot be separated from the way in which it is framed. The narrator and the narrative are inseparable, just as there is no dance without a dancer.
The Mail on Sunday is presently serialising David Laws's account of the coalition talks. It is as you would expect: an exercise in retrospective self-justification. Labour politicians, especially the surly Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, are portrayed as the bad guys: tribal, belligerent, arrogant and against coalition. Published by the enterprising Biteback Publishing, 22 Days in May takes the form of a diary, with Laws as the controlling, omniscient intelligence: he recounts verbatim telephone conversations between Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg as if he were there listening in (more likely, the calls were taped and Laws has read the transcripts). He is unequivocal in his condemnation of Labour and of the failure of the entire social-democratic project. In Laws's interpretation, only Mandelson, Brown and Andrew Adonis wanted to form a so-called progressive coalition and Brown was motivated less by principle than desperation.
In the published extracts, Laws refers to a "policy paper" that Labour's negotiating team brought to the talks that "seemed to indicate tougher action on the deficit reduction than the party had previously planned". It is understood that in the appendices to 22 Days, he publishes a selection of documents from the negotiations, including papers tabled by both the Conservatives and Labour. Intriguingly, he does not include the papers tabled by his own side.
What is it that he wishes to hide? I have read the document, titled "Recovery and Renewal", which the Lib Dems tabled for the Labour talks, and this week we publish it for the first time on our website, Newstatesman.com. What the document reveals is that there was an alternative. A deal was possible on every issue apart from on the pace and severity of deficit reduction, as Adonis reveals in his review of the Laws book to be published in the NS next week.
“Recovery and Renewal" reminds us once again of just how much the Lib Dems have compromised for power. This is what we have learned:
1 In the document, the Lib Dems profess their support for "the eradication of the structural deficit within a responsible timescale" but, in reality, they were demanding a faster pace of deficit reduction "in light of market concerns", including "some in-year cuts". This confirms that the party made no attempt to stick to its election pledge to delay spending cuts until 2011. A deal was possible on every issue apart from deficit reduction.
2 At this late stage (Tuesday 10 May), the Lib Dems were still demanding the introduction of AV without a referendum. Some Conservative MPs believe that, in order to secure an improved offer from the Tories, Clegg deceived Cameron into believing that Labour had promised to meet this demand. They hadn't.
3 The Lib Dems called for "a commitment not to raise the cap on tuition fees", a cut in the number of government ministers, a four-year, fixed-term parliament and "a commitment to no public subsidy for nuclear power stations". All of these pledges have since been broken by the government. The obvious conclusion: the coalition deal was heavily weighted in the Conservatives' favour.
Yet, what is tantalising about the document is that it shows there was clear potential for a Lab-Lib agreement. But the Lib Dems' intense dislike of Gordon Brown (the old saying that you should be good to people on your way up as they will be kind to you in return on your way down was never more applicable than to the former prime minister in his hour of urgent need), and the leadership's "Orange Book" neoliberal instincts and desire to move the party away from its entrenched social liberalism, made a deal with the Conservatives inevitable from the moment the election returned a hung parliament.