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So Near, Yet So Far – Review of ‘5 Days in May’

June 27, 2013 Leave a comment

‘Is a deal still possible?’ Nick Robinson texted me at 3,25 a.m. on election night.

‘Everything looks possible’, I texted back.’

What might have been? What might have transpired if the Labour (not the Tories) and the Liberal Democrats have formed Britain’s Coalition in May 2010? In a gripping, brief and well written account of the inter-party negotiations, Andrew Adonis tells a tale of idealism, ambition, teamwork, frustration and betrayal. Now ‘optioned’, this story of how Cameron nearly did not become Prime Minister reads, in parts, like a political thriller.

A word about the author; Andrew Adonis is extremely well placed to narrate the history of Friday 7th to Tuesday 11th May 2010. A former Liberal Democrat (and friendly with the Left of that party), Oxford academic and Observer journalist, Adonis eventually rose up the ranks to become Secretary for State for Transport under Gordon Brown. His role as honest broker in coalition talks with the Liberal Democrats would require all his considerable intellectual, people and political skills and he nearly helped bring off something that almost the entire Westminster-Talking Head-Media and Political Establishment had deemed impossible; the survival of Labour in government after what was perceived as a shattering defeat.

The Dramatis Personae could grace any Shakespearean stage; a brooding, unpopular ‘King’ (Gordon Brown), possibly rediscovering his nobler self in defeat. A young upstart Prince (David Cameron) eager to take the reigns of power. An unknown Knight, Nick Clegg, who may not be as pure as he seems. The wise elders – Paddy Ashdown and Vince Cable – unable to have their counsel prevail. And the plotters, in the form of Peter Mandelson and, more memorably, in the guise of David Laws, a man whom Adonis clearly believes to have acted without good faith in his dealings with Labour during this period. Adonis writes that Nick Clegg’s political views are of that of a European Liberal; ‘liberal’ on social issues, right-wing on the economy. He believes he (Clegg) feels more at ease with the Tories than Ashdown or Cable will ever do. Cameron and Clegg are cut from the same cloth.

It could have been so different…if Nick Clegg had relied on his older ‘greybeards’ and not his ‘Orange Book’ right-wing Tory fellow travellers and own instincts, the numbers might have been there. Adonis makes a convincing case that the smaller parties would not have united to vote no confidence in an incoming Labour-Liberal Democrat administration, that the spending cuts proposed by Alistair Darling were far more humane and better for the economy than those implemented by Osborne and that the Conservatives will end up causing terrible damage to Nick Clegg and his Party. While the ‘Gordon Factor’ was a big issue in negotiations, this was more or less resolved through Brown’s magnanimous resignation offers and other actions to help keep the prospect of a Labour led Government alive. There was a feeling among some, if not all, Labour negotiators that while Labour were prepared to deal, the Liberal Democrats never were.

By any progressive standard, the Con-Dem Government has not been a good one. Adonis provides an acute, and for Clegg and Laws, an extremely damning analysis of the smaller party’s failings in the Coalition. His recommendations for future coalitions are based on these findings and could apply to most Western Parliamentary Democracies: ‘The leader of the second party needs to head and major department in his or her own right….There needs to be genuinely joint control of economic policy and the Treasury….The second party needs to hold at least one Cabinet post in each of the three main sectors of the government – i.e. (i.e. foreign/defence; public services and welfare; environment/energy)….There needs to be robust machinery for ongoing policy development and negotiation between the parties.’

Adonis turns a story of policy and professional politicians into an essential account of what did go on in those five days in May. Whether the Con-Dem Government lasts full-term – and the current indications are (‘Europe’ may split them up) that it will, the author has shown how politics can be the art of the possible and about how social democracy can make a real difference to ordinary people’s lives. As such, it should be a rallying call to the Left and Adonis succeeds in demonstrating clear red ground between the Conservatives and the Labour Party. Ironically though, the Labour Party seems to be accepting the Osborne agenda more and more.

Miliband and Balls may be in the field of ‘expectation management’ but that shouldn’t mean abandoning key strategic positions that are not only against what the Party stands for, but economically short-term and damaging for recovery too. ‘Five Days in May’ should be read as a primer on the importance of over-arching ideology in politics and as a history of how Labour might have stayed in power.

‘Five Days in May’ – Andrew Adonis – Biteback Publishing – £12.99

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