Conservative MP Rob Wilson’s book on the formation of a coalition government in May 2010, 5 Days to Power: The Journey to Coalition Britain, plays up the drama of the events, talking of how “Gordon Brown and David Cameron were both determined to do whatever was necessary to secure the position of Prime Minister” as if the story is one of a cliff-hanging drama which could have gone either way.
Whilst the outcome is certainly significant for British political history, what the book is far less convincing on is that there was really any serious chance of a Labour – Lib Dem deal that would have kept David Cameron out of 10 Downing Street. Neither Wilson’s book, nor its sister book published at the same time – 22 Days in May by Lib Dem MP David Laws (reviewed here), offers a convincing alternative sequence of events which could have delivered a Labour PM once the election results came in.
The obstacles to a Labour – Lib Dem deal were threefold. First, the election results made the Parliamentary arithmetic for such a deal extremely tough. “It became a regular refrain at the telephone conversations and meetings between Clegg and Brown that whatever Brown said, Clegg would respond by drawing attention to ‘the sheer unforgiving political reality’ of the figures’,” Wilson records.
Second, the decisions people in Labour had made over the previous three years to elect and then stick with Gordon Brown had left their party with a leader that others were extremely wary of trying to make a deal with. As Laws puts it in his own book, “If his own Cabinet colleagues cannot work with him, what chance do four or five Lib Dem ministers have?”
Third, as has come out in all the accounts so far, Labour were badly unprepared for talks, with divisions within their own negotiating team, their team not speaking for all the key figures and little in the way of preparation over what policy areas were up for negotiation.
As Wilson recounts,
Ed Balls’ experience of Labour’s preparations for a hung parliament, or lack of them, is perhaps the most instructive. The first that Balls, one of Brown’s closest and most long-standing allies, heard of the fact that a Labour negotiating team would hold talks with the Liberal Democrats – and that he was part of the team – was when Brown called him late on Saturday morning, with the meeting due at 3pm. It was only on the drive down to London from Yorkshire that Balls found out who else was in the negotiating team … The pre-meeting briefing with Mandelson consisted of a conversation as Balls bought a cup of tea in Portcullis House and the pair walked to the lifts.
All three of those factors were set by 10pm on polling day. As a result, Wilson’s book – as with that of Laws – is an entertaining and interesting read but as a book that only briefly touches on the prior events which set the scene, it is not one that explains why a coalition government came to be. The explanations for that lie in events prior to Friday May 7th, which is when Wilson’s book really gets going. For those explanations you need a longer historical perspective – and who knows quite how far back you have to go in Gordon Brown’s case to explain why he ended up a senior politician that so many were so wary of being able to work with yet almost none in Labour were willing to say ‘no’ to him being leader? Perhaps even as far back as the Labour politics of the 1990s.
Where Rob Wilson’s book is weakest is in its attempts to either dramatise events (suggesting there was a real chance Brown could have stayed on) or in trying to paint a picture of Nick Clegg as being keener on a deal with the Conservatives for ideological reasons rather than because of the circumstances. In that vein, he suggests that the exclusion of Vince Cable, generally seen as warmer to Labour, from the Lib Dem negotiating team is evidence, but in doing so he glosses over the voluntary decision by both Clegg and Laws to have Paddy Ashdown, also generally seen as warmer to Labour, as one of the key advisors, frequently turned to during the days after the election.
Where the book is strongest is in the sense it gives of how emotions flowed back and forth over the days, not always for wholly logical reasons in hindsight, as the negotiations took different turns. Though the book is not exactly politically even-handed (it is by a Conservative MP and, look, it is Cameron who gets by far the most praise of the party leaders), it is much fairer than a simple political polemic. Other points of view get their look in and the book is far better for that.