Andrew Adonis’s 5 Days in May, his book about the May 2010 coalition negotiations following the general election, is very much one of two halves: a near-contemporary account written in the heat of the moment and then reflections on what happened, written three years on. It’s also a book of two halves in that one part reveals little new whilst the other offers much worthwhile insight.
The near-contemporary account adds little to existing books such as those by David Laws (22 Days in May) and Rob Wilson (5 Days to Power). It does try to give an account more favourable to Labour politicians than those others, but the key elements of criticism of Labour are (to the author’s credit) still very clearly present in this book, including such basic mistakes as Labour’s senior figures being so insular that they didn’t even know who former Lib Dem Chief Whip Andrew Stunell was.
The book makes clear how horribly under-prepared for a hung Parliament Labour was, with little thought having gone into how to hold the party together if a deal was to be struck and there was little understanding from senior Labour figures about the sort of compromises a coalition would require. Even where Adonis tries to pin the blame on those in other parties, he doesn’t convince – such as when he complains that Paddy Ashdown wouldn’t sit down in public on a train and talk to Peter Mandelson about possible deals. In public? No wonder Paddy Ashdown ran for the toilets rather than stay and talk.
Where the book becomes much more interesting is in the second half (though it’s much less than half the book), where Andrew Adonis looks back from three years on, reflecting that his account, “reminds me of a general’s despatch after one of Britain’s all too common defeats in the Napoleonic wars, dictated whilst the smoke was still swirling and the dead and maimed being taken off the field. It is vivid, partisan, and angry.”
He goes on to use the advantage of hindsight to adjust his views of events, including concluding that, “In retrospect, I downplayed Labour’s fatalism during and after the 2010 election … a fair proportion of the Labour Cabinet were resigned to losing the election. And when the election wasn’t won by the Tories, they were equally resigned to handing power to David Cameron on a plate”.
In two key respects, even with hindsight, I think Adonis still misjudges the Liberal Democrats. He fails to grasp just how unpopular the record of much of the New Labour government was with Liberal Democrat of all stripes, especially but not only when it came to civil liberties and the love of micro-management. He still seems to fail to see that many who put themselves on the centre left were heartily fed up with Labour’s record in power. Moreover, he is airily dismissive of the idea that the Liberal Democrats might say that the largest party should get the first attempt to form a government in a hung Parliament for any reason other than a covert right-wing plot.
However, despite that Adonis is also pretty self-critical of Labour, emphasising how much more seriously it needs to take preparations for any future hung Parliament. Moreover, his suggestions for what Liberal Democrats should do differently in a future hung Parliament are, for all the acerbic commentary around them, thoughtful and interesting.
Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.