5 Days In May
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.