The British have long since decided to solve the problem of who should run the government of the country by holding a General Election every so often. Somebody wins, somebody loses, and the winner gets to run things for the next few years. Sometimes however the result of an election is somewhat inconclusive in that no single party commands a majority in the House of Commons, a state of affairs that is commonly known as a hung parliament. Such was the case with the UK General Election of 2010 that left the Conservatives as the largest party, but someway short of a majority, and with the Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power between the former and the incumbent Labour Party.
With 650 available seats in the House of Commons a party needed 326 seats for a majority, although in practice, given that there was one neutral Speaker of the House of Commons and five Sinn Fein MPs who wouldn't appear, one could get away with less. As of the 7th May 2010 the position was that the General Election had awarded the Conservative Party 305 seats, the Labour Party 258, and the Liberal Democrats 57. Thus the Parliamentary arithmetic was fairly straightforward; 305 plus 57 was 362 which was a majority, whilst 258 plus 57 was 315 which wasn't. Therefore whilst a Conservative-Liberal Democrat deal could deliver (on the face of it) a stable government, on its own a Labour-Liberal Democrat deal could not, and thus it was suggested that it would be necessary to draft in the support of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Alliance Party from Northern Ireland and form a 'traffic light coalition' of red, yellow and green.
The problem was however that even then the coalition would only have 319 seats, and would be dependent on the acquiescence of the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Democratic Unionist Party, and the prospect of being at the mercy of the nationalists and obliged to buy their support at regular intervals was not necessarily an attractive one. And thus whilst the SNP leader might well have called Alex Salmond for a "progressive alliance" involving both his party and Plaid Cymru, the Labour Party weren't interested. In fact Douglas Alexander went so far as to say that he could not envisage any circumstances in which Labour would enter into agreement with the SNP, citing "fundamental differences" between the two parties. Nevertheless as 'unstable' as it might have been, a 'traffic light coalition' would have been sufficient to have kept the Conservatives out of government. (Which of course, to some people was all that really mattered.)
All of which meant that it wasn't clear what kind of government the nation would end up with, and that it might take some time to sort everything out.
A Hung Parliament
Since it was widely expected that a hung parliament would be the result of the election it had already been arranged that Parliament would not reconvene until the 25th May, thereby giving all parties concerned at least a fortnight to sort things out. Some debate and discussion had also taken place regarding the exact procedures to be followed in the event of a hung parliament, and the Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell had even gone so far as to issue (at the request of Gordon Brown) a document that set out his views on what the rules were.
The first thing to note would be that, irrespective of the result of the election, Gordon Brown was the Prime Minister, and he remained so until he chose to resign, or was obliged to do so after being defeated in a confidence motion on the floor of the House of Commons. Indeed there was a time when British Prime Ministers used to take no notice of the election results and soldier on with their governments until such an eventuality occurred. That is until the year 1868 when Benjamin Disraeli decided, having clearly lost an election, that it would be a waste of everyone's time to pretend otherwise and promptly resigned. Since that time every serving British Prime Minster has done the same, and thus established what is known as a 'convention'.
In the same way it was claimed by some 'constitutional experts' that the convention was that Gordon Brown had the "first shot at forming a government" since he was the incumbent. This wasn't the case at all, it was simply that the last time there was a hung parliament in 1974, Harold Wilson had decided that his Labour Party would wait and see what happened regarding Edward Heath's attempts to deal with the Liberal Party, before doing anything himself. The idea that this had set some kind of precedent which was binding on his successors simply demonstrated a lack of understanding of the nature of British parliamentary conventions, which are not rules, merely habitual practices that continue to be followed because everyone believes that it is sensible to do so. Since it was clearly absurd to maintain that other parties couldn't talk to each other, and impossible to oblige them to talk exclusively to Gordon Brown if they felt disinclined to do so, the idea that there was any kind of convention regarding an order of priority for coalition negotiations was patently ridiculous.
As it was, the Liberal Democrats had made it clear what their approach would be during the course of the election campaign, when party leader Nick Clegg committed himself as follows; "I tie my hands in the following sense: that the party that has more votes and seats, but doesn't get an absolute majority - I support them. When the electorate make up their mind we've got to accept that verdict."
Friday, 7th May 2010
This would explain why at 11.12 am on the 7th May, Nick Clegg announced that he now thought it was the time for the "Conservative party to prove that it is capable of seeking to govern in the national interest". Or to put it another way, "make me an offer". At 1.30 pm Gordon Brown gave his response. He said that he was quite content to allow Clegg as much time as he liked to talk to Cameron, was "happy to talk" to any of the other parties himself, and dangled a very large carrot in front of the Liberal Democrats as he offered the prospect of "immediate legislation" on the subject of electoral reform.
Shortly after 2.30 pm David Cameron then set out his "big, open and comprehensive offer" to the Liberal Democrats to work in government with the Conservatives. He went into some detail regarding the common ground that he believed existed between his party and the Liberal Democrats, and promised "an all-party committee of inquiry" on the subject of electoral reform, as he made a pointed reference to the "outgoing Labour government". As a result, at 5.50 pm that day it was announced that "Nick Clegg and David Cameron had a short telephone discussion this afternoon during which they agreed that they should explore further proposals for a programme of economic and political reform".
The Daily Telegraph greeted this news with the headline 'Conservatives have right to govern, says Clegg', as The Independent decided that this meant that Cameron had been "offered the keys to 10 Downing Street". The Daily Mail went with 'Clegg slaps down Brown's bid to squat in Downing Street' and decided that that as far as it was concerned "Gordon Brown's hopes of clinging to power were dealt a devastating blow today as Nick Clegg insisted the Tories should have the right to try to form a government after winning the popular vote". The Guardian was naturally more equivocal and simply said that the Conservatives had won the "cautious backing" of the Liberal Democrats under the headline 'David Cameron to attempt to form Tory government'.
Saturday 8th May 2010
All three party leaders were more or less obliged to attend VE Day ceremony in Westminster on the Saturday, but other than that not a great deal happened. There was a meeting of the Liberal Democrat MPs and peers, and another meeting of the Liberal Democrat federal executive both of which "fully endorsed" Clegg's plan to open negotiations with the Conservatives.
There was a demonstration in Trafalgar Square in favour of electoral reform which was attended by "several hundred people", but the most exciting news was the claim by the BBC journalist Jon Sopel that a Liberal Democrat source had told him that a telephone conversation held between Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg that previous evening had not gone well; specifically that Gordon Brown had "exploded with rage" and retaliated with a "diatribe laced with threats" after Clegg had suggested that the Prime Minister had no right to cling on to power after losing the election. It was also said that the tone of the conversation was "in sharp contrast to the respectful and constructive talk between David Cameron and Mr Clegg", although naturally both official Labour and Liberal Democrat sources denied that there was any truth behind this story.
The Guardian decided to try and push Nick Clegg in the right direction as its Saturday editorial called on the Liberal Democrats to "seize this historic moment" and "turn to Labour" and for Brown to "announce his plans to step down". Apparently it was "naive to assume" that Brown's previous "readiness to embrace" the notion of electoral reform was "driven by anything other than a cynical attempt to woo Mr Clegg away from Mr Cameron and thereby stay on as prime minister", and therefore it was necessary to have a new Labour leader in place. Presumably because any new Leader's attempts to 'woo' Clegg away from Cameron with an offer of electoral reform would somehow by less cynical. Elsewhere there were commentators telling the nation that a Conservative-Lib Dem deal would never come about, and that in the end the Liberal Democrats would be doing a deal with Labour, whilst others were equally certain that it was all over for Brown and that he would be resigning soon.
Sunday, 9th May 2010
By now the media had been given the opportunity to mull over the prospect of a deal between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The Observer did its best to throw a spanner into the works by claiming that "David Cameron's hopes of forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats were dramatically undermined" after the paper obtained a copy of a "top-secret letter outlining the hard line Eurosceptic stance" that the Conservatives intended to adopt in government. The Independent on Sunday proclaimed that 'Clegg must hold out for PR' and claimed that "senior Lib Dem figures were pressing Mr Clegg to shun Mr Cameron's overtures". Helpfully the Independent did indeed include a number of quotations of some 'Lib Dem figures' who were indeed saying that, although strangely enough they also included as many quotations from other 'Lib Dem figures' who were saying quite the opposite.
The Sunday Telegraph focussed on reports that the conversation between Cameron and Clegg had been "constructive and amicable", as the Sunday Times led with 'Voters tell Gordon Brown to quit as David Cameron races to secure deal' as it reported the results of a YouGov poll which showed that 62% of the electorate wanted Gordon Brown to quit now, which later the paper to include "Gordon Brown has no place in anybody's bed. He should no longer be prime minister". It also claimed that Cameron was "expected to make new concessions which could include a public ballot on changing the electoral system".
The Mail on Sunday focussed on the reports of "Gordon Brown's bad-tempered phone call" which it believed was a "major setback" to the "prospects of a Lib-Lab pact", as it reported on the results of its own BPIX survey which showed that a total of 68% wanted rid of Brown. The Mail appeared to be of the same opinion, as the paper described Brown as a "political zombie lurking in a strange twilight between power and oblivion" and that he was "finished in the eyes of the country and of his own party". The Sunday Express reported that the Conservatives were "close" to a power-sharing deal with the Liberal Democrats, although their view was that there was "only one solution" to the current political stalemate; which was of course "another election".
What actually happened on the Sunday was that the Liberal Democrat negotiating team of Danny Alexander, Andrew Stunell, Chris Huhne and David Laws formally met their Conservative counterparts of Ed Llewellyn, William Hague, George Osborne, Oliver Letwin at the Cabinet Office at 11.00 am that day. The talks continued until about 5.30 pm, and the official word was that they were "very positive and productive" and that the two parties intended to "meet again over the next twenty-four hours". It was also made known that both Clegg and Brown had held "private talks" during the afternoon, and The Times speculated that "senior Labour figures" were "contemplating" offering a deal that would see Brown step down in return for some kind of power-sharing deal between the two parties.
The "formerly loyal Labour backbencher" John Mann, and the newly returned member for Bassetlaw, said that "Gordon Brown should not lead Labour into any future election and he should stand down before the next Labour Party conference", largely because he believed that Brown was an obstacle to any pact with the Liberal Democrats. Elsewhere however there were signs within the Labour ranks that not everyone was happy with the idea of the so-called 'traffic-light coalition'. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon North) described the prospect of a Labour government staying in power thanks to the support of the Liberal Democrats and a "ragbag coalition depending on assorted nationalists" as "ridiculous"; George Howarth (Knowsley) offered the opinion that the "proper thing to do, in the interests of the country and in the interests of the Labour Party, is for the Conservatives to form a government, for us to be the Opposition - and be in opposition in a constructive way and where anything the Conservative Party puts forward is in our view in the national interest, to support it"; whilst Paul Flynn (Newport West) also spoke disapprovingly of a coalition "stitched together ... with all the odds and ends that are about", and predicted that, in any event, the Liberal Democrats would fail to make a deal with anyone, and that a minority Conservative government would result.
Some commentators claimed that the public would be outraged if the Liberal Democrats made a deal with the Conservatives, others who were equally confident that the public would be outraged if the Liberal Democrats "propped up" Gordon Brown.
Monday 10th May 2010
"Bear with us a little bit longer" were Nick Clegg's opening words on the Monday, as it appeared that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had yet to strike an agreement, although according to the Daily Telegraph the two sides were "close to agreeing economic deal". Or as Danny Alexander explained, "We're agreed that whatever any agreement made will have deficit reduction and economic stability at its heart". In the meantime the Guardian offered the opinion that today was "deadline day" for any deal, The Times suggested that it might take until Thursday; the Daily Mail offered its view that the Conservatives would strike an historic deal with the Liberal Democrats "very soon", The Independent disagreed as it claimed that 'Dissent grows among Lib Dems'.
By 4.00 pm that day no deal has yet emerged, although according to David Laws (speaking for the Liberal Democrats) they had made progress and his side had "asked for clarification". The casual reader of the media might have concluded that the two parties were on the verge of sealing the deal, and that there was nothing more to be said. However at lunchtime that day the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson had revealed that there had been a 'secret' meeting between the Liberal Democrats and a team from Labour consisting of Peter Mandelson, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Andrew Adonis, and at 5.04 pm Gordon Brown announced that the Liberal Democrats now wanted to begin formal discussions with the Labour Party, and that to facilitate the progress of these talks, he intended stepping down as Leader of the Labour Party once his successor had been chosen at the party conference in September. Thus whilst at 4.00 pm that day the Independent website ran the story 'Deal edges closer as leaders address teams'; by 6.00 pm it was obliged to change the headline to 'Gordon Brown to resign as Labour leader' and then change it again half an hour later to read 'Gordon Brown to quit in bid to woo Lib Dems'.
As the media digested this news The Times best caught the mood with the headline 'Brown bombshell - I'll quit, but not yet', but nevertheless felt that it was a "desperate final move" to stop the Liberal Democrats securing a deal with the Conservatives. The rumour was that the Liberal Democrats regarded the deal offered by the Conservatives as good, but not quite good enough, although as Nick Clegg made clear in his statement, his party would continue talking to the Conservatives in order to "find a way to a full agreement", despite also talking to Labour.
And so the bidding war began (or so it at least appeared), as at 7.15 pm William Hague came forward to say that the Conservatives would now "go the extra mile" and offer the Liberal Democrats the prospect of a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV); this being apparently their "final offer". Shortly afterwards Sky News reported that Labour were now willing to offer AV without a referendum, on the basis that it would only be a modification of the current system, not a full alternative to it, and so they didn't need one, and by 8.00 pm the BBC reported that in addition to the offer of a bill on bringing in AV, Labour were also offering a referendum on a "fuller system of proportional representation".
Tuesday, 11th May 2010
Naturally it was the news of Gordon Brown's intended resignation that dominated the papers on the following day. 'Gord Bye' said The Sun, as the Daily Mirror spoke approvingly of how Brown had sacrificed himself to "stop the Tories" under the headline 'The Greater Gord'. The Times had 'Brown's parting shot starts coalition bidding war', The Guardian 'Brown plays last card - by resigning', as The Independent went with 'The Brown paradox' and wondered if, despite his many faults, Gordon Brown might have "saved his party". The Daily Telegraph said that there had been "a very Labour coup" and that David Cameron had been "outflanked" by Labour's machinations as it appeared that Brown's timely resignation now meant that Labour would remain in government. This was welcome news for some, such as Steve Richards, writing in The Independent, who felt that Brown had "played an ace" and that his resignation was a "potential game-changer" that would deliver the longed-for "progressive alliance".
Elsewhere however, the news that the Liberal Democrats had apparently changed their minds was greeted with something less than an enthusiastic response. The Daily Mail pronounced it 'A Squalid Day for Democracy' and the Daily Telegraph took a similar view as it described Brown's resignation ploy as "an act of quite staggering cynicism based on naked party advantage" which was "effectively seeking to nullify the result of last week's general election". "This is a bleak day for our democracy" was the paper's conclusion. A "senior shadow cabinet minister" believed that the previous day's events were evidence of "clear treachery on Nick Clegg's part" since he was "saying one thing to us and planning another with Brown"; Boris Johnson spoke of "ludicrous skulduggery and cloak-and-dagger assignations"; Michael Heseltine described it as "party politics at its most sordid", and Malcolm Rifkind thought it all smacked of a "Robert Mugabe style of politics".
However as it turned out, there were many within the Labour ranks who were equally unenthusiastic. As previously noted, a number of Labour backbenchers had already expressed their reservations regarding any deal with the Liberal Democrats, and they were now joined by some of their more heavyweight peers. John Reid came forward to offer his opinion that it would result in "mutually assured destruction" for both parties, and David Blunkett appeared on the Today programme that day to say that "I don't like what is happening at all", posed the question, "Can we trust the Liberal Democrats? They're behaving like every harlot in history", and predicted that it would all end in disaster. Writing on his blog the Labour MP Tom Harris, dismissed his Party's plan to offer an immediate Bill in favour of Alternative Vote and a referendum on further change on the basis that, "This cannot be delivered; Labour MPs will not support it". And that was really the problem. It was all very well for the likes of Peter Mandelson to promise the earth to the Liberal Democrats, it was another thing to actually deliver said promises.
Suddenly the papers had to reconsider, and The Guardian felt obliged to stick the headline 'Labour split on deal with Lib Dems' on its website. With the headline 'Labour split over prospect of 'obscene' Lib-Lab coalition', The Times agreed. The paper noted the views of both Reid and Blunkett and additionally claimed that it was aware of "wider Cabinet disquiet". Jack Straw was said to be "incensed" at the proposed deal and others who were also said to be opposed to the deal included Liam Byrne, Bob Ainsworth, and Andy Burnham. One "senior Cabinet source" was on hand to explain that Labour had been obliged "to fight hard to get the AV referendum promise through the PLP. We could never go beyond that. If the Libs are asking us for PR, they won't get it. We can't deliver." Another "ministerial source added" described it as "obscene", and yet another said that it was "all about giving Gordon another six months in the job".
A further crack appeared at 11.16 am that day one Gary Gibbon from Channel 4 claimed to be in possession of the inside story of what had transpired during a two-hour meeting of the Liberal Democrat MPs and peers held on the previous evening. According to Gibbons, the balance of opinion had already "swung decisively" behind a deal with the Conservatives, and that even Vince Cable was arguing against a deal with Labour. An hour and a half later at 12.47 pm the meeting between the Labour and Liberal Democrat negotiators in the House of Commons ended, as the news arrived that Clegg and Cameron had been conducting their own "private talks" that morning. At 2.00 pm the Liberal Democrat team duly returned to the negotiating table, only this time they were back talking to the Conservatives. 'Lib Dems turn to Tories as Labour splits' was the message the Times put up on its website, as BBC Radio 5 Live's political correspondent Jon Pienaar reported that the talks with Labour had "gone nowhere" and it was now just a question of time before the Liberal Democrats signed up with the Conservatives. Shortly after 4.00 pm Laura Kuenssberg from BBC News reported that she had spotted "large holdalls" being loaded into two government cars at the back of Number 10.
'Hopes fading for Lab-Lib alliance' said the Independent as the Daily Mail was in no doubt about what had happened, 'Brown throws in the towel' it said and 'Clegg's last gasp deal with Tories after talks with Labour collapse'. Although everyone now awaited the results of the joint meeting of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party and ruling federal executive set for 7.30pm that evening to receive some kind of confirmation, it was perfectly clear that there would be no deal between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, and thus no prospect of Labour continuing in government.
Therefore at 7.20 pm that day Gordon Brown announced his immediate resignation as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and eight minutes later he was at Buckingham Palace to complete the formalities. At 8.09 pm Cameron arrived at Buckingham Palace, and left at 8.35 pm for Downing Street. And so it was that David Cameron became, at the age of forty-three, the youngest Prime Minister since the Earl of Liverpool in 1812, and the first Conservative to occupy that office for thirteen years.
There was however, still no detailed conformation as to the exact detail of the agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, or indeed of whether there was any agreement at all, but the expectation was that there would either be minority Conservative government 'going it alone', or one supported by a confidence and supply agreement with the Liberal Democrats. It was therefore with some surprise that people greeted the news that emerged at 8.44 pm that evening when David Cameron announced that it was his intention to form a "proper and full coalition" with the Liberal Democrats. An official announcement by a "Downing Street spokesman" followed at 11.13 pm that "Her Majesty The Queen has been pleased to approve the appointment of Nick Clegg as deputy prime minister. It has been agreed that five cabinet posts will be filled by Liberal Democrats, including the appointment of Nick Clegg." (Which incidentally, was the first time that the crown had recognised the existence of such a position as that of the 'deputy prime minister'.)
What The Papers Said
One could almost taste the disappointment felt by the likes of The Guardian and The Independent. Whilst both papers had respectively said 'vote Liberal Democrat' and 'vote for a hung parliament' during the course of the election, they had both done so on the basis that the outcome would be some kind of Labour-Liberal Democrat would emerge; neither had ever considered the possibility that something else might happen. Indeed, according to Private Eye, the Guardian's editor Alan Rushbridger had even called Nick Clegg on the Friday to beg him not to talk to the Conservatives, whilst in the aftermath of the coalition deal, journalists from the Independent and Guardian were said to be scurrying around trying to find anti-coalition Liberal Democrats who were prepared to place their disappointment on record. Officially, the Independent was of the opinion that the "progressive coalition failed the stress test" which was a "cause for real regret" whilst for the Guardian it was a "national opportunity lost", although it did admit that the result was "a better alternative for Britain" than a minority Conservative administration.
Naturally the Daily Mirror wasn't happy with the way things had turned out and claimed that the "alliance forged by Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg" could not hope to "bring the stable leadership the country needs at this pivotal juncture" and that the country deserved "better leadership and stronger Government than this deal will allow", although the paper failed to explain quite how it expected this alternative to come into being. Writing in the Guardian one Andrew Adonis was particularly unimpressed as he described the Cameron-Clegg coalition as the "most unprincipled governing combination in Britain since the Fox-North coalition of 1783". But then as a former member of the ousted Labour government, and indeed a former Liberal Democrat himself, there was a certain amount of sour grapes involved, particularly since this was the same Lord Adonis who'd previously written of the "fundamental Labour-Lib Dem identity of interest" and was no doubt annoyed at being proved wrong.
The headline in the Daily Mail was 'Baby we made it!' and in the Daily Express 'Britain expects'; both of which played on the fact that Samantha Cameron was pregnant. The Sun proclaimed 'Dave New World' as The Times spoke of 'Embracing change: Cameron forges historic coalition' as it hailed the "the first peacetime coalition for more than 80 years". Of course those on the left predicted that it would all end badly; writing in the Daily Mirror, Kevin Maguire called it a "marriage of convenience" which "will end in divorce", whilst over in the Independent one Steve Richards expressed his doubts over "how a Eurosceptic party with deeply held convictions about tax, public spending and the role of the state can work for very long with a pro-European party ...." And he stopped there, and went on to claim that the Liberal Democrat annual party conference often 'veered' to the left of Labour's, for had he actually considered the convictions held by the Liberal Democrats on the subjects of "tax, public spending and the role of the state" he might have been obliged to admit that they were actually not all that different to those held by the Conservatives.
The Realignment of the Left
The emergence of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government came as a great shock to many people, since it was almost an article of faith amongst many that the Liberal Democrats were part of the British Left, and shared a common set of values with the Labour Party. Or as Polly Toynbee, herself a former member and parliamentary candidate for the Social Democratic Party, put it; they were "two near-identical progressive parties, divided only by history, tradition and a rotten voting system".
The idea that the Labour Party and Liberals shared a common political heritage dated back to the days of Jo Grimond, who was Leader of the Liberal Party from 1956 to 1967, promoted the idea of the "realignment of the Left"; a phrase that encapsulated his hopes that the Labour Party would split and that the Liberals would join with the Labour right to form a new centre-left political force. Grimond was disappointed in this regard, although his later successor David Steel committed the Liberal Party to the Lib-Lab Pact which kept the Callaghan government alive during the years 1977 to 1979, and might be said to have opened the door for the famous Gang of Four, who abandoned Labour in 1981 and formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which promptly agreed an electoral pact with the Liberal Party. Unfortunately, despite some early promise the SDP never had quite the impact its founders intended, and in the end merged with the Liberals in 1988 to form the Liberal Democrats, without actually achieving much in the way of 'realignment'.
The emergence of New Labour in 1994 further excited the prospect of realignment, as the Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, as he put it himself, sought "an alliance with Labour that would reshape politics and bring in a new and more modern form of government". Indeed prior to the General Election of 1997, it was said that Tony Blair considered the possibility of inviting the Liberal Democrats to join his government irrespective of the result, whilst with the Cook-Maclennan Agreement the two parties agreed on a common approach to the issue of general political reform. Of course once Labour had won its landslide victory in 1997, lost interest in the Liberal Democrats, and quietly ignored the conclusions of the Jenkins Commission on electoral reform.
In some ways all this political manoeuvring between the two parties was rather surprising, since the Labour Party at least claimed to be a Socialist party, whilst Liberalism was a political ideology that sought salvation in the individual rather than the state, and was thus arguably diametrically opposed to Socialism or indeed Social Democracy for that matter. However, no one actually took much notice of this until 2004 when a collection of essays by a number of Liberal Democrats was published under the title of The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism. The authors of the Orange Book generally rejected what they referred to as "nanny-state liberalism" and proposed that the Liberal Democrats should base their policies on "traditional Liberal values and principles", and argued that the party had "wrongly shunned economic liberalism" simply because of its association with Margaret Thatcher. The 'Orange Bookers' as they became known, included the likes of David Laws, Edward Davey, Vince Cable, Steve Webb, Chris Huhne, Nick Clegg and Mark Oaten, and found themselves dismissed by one Tony Greaves, a Liberal Democrat Front bench spokesman in the House of Lords at the time, as "pseudo-Blairites with little following in the wider party". Of course as subsequent events showed, the 'Orange Bookers' proved to have more than a little following in the party, as they provided both of the contenders for the party leadership contest in 2007, whilst of the contributing authors, four (Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, David Laws, and Chris Huhne) were to become Cabinet Ministers, and a fifth (Steve Webb) a Minister of State in the coalition government that formed in 2010.
At the time as the Liberal Democrats were rediscovering the virtues of economic liberalism and seeking to combine it with a commitment to social liberalism, one David Cameron had succeeded in being chosen as Leader of the Conservative Party in 2005. Cameron was keen to 'modernise' the Conservatives, decontaminate the 'nasty party' image, and combine the economic liberalism of the Thatcher era with a more inclusive social agenda. In a real sense therefore, both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties were converging.
Some people noticed what was happening. Back on the 18th May 2008, the journalist Rosa Prince wrote a story for the Daily Telegraph under the headline 'Nick Clegg will back Tories in hung Parliament', which was dismissed by many at the time as mere 'speculation', which indeed it was, but a rather accurate piece of speculation as it turned out. Whilst on the April 18th, 2010 the blogger Guido Fawkes posted a picture of Cameron and Clegg in conversation under the headline 'The Change Coalition'. "Imagine it is the afternoon of May 7 ..." he wrote, "Cameron walks out of his Millbank headquarters along the Thames embankment to 4 Cowley Street where Nick Clegg greets him and together they walk purposefully towards the Mall surrounded by photographers and cameramen as crowds cheer and many ask 'which one is which?" Of course, it wasn't the 7th May, it was the 11th May, but the sentiment was accurate.
It is however one thing to argue that two parties shared a certain philosophical basis, it would altogether be another thing to conclude that they were therefore capable of co-operating in any meaningful sense, as politics is generally dominated by short term policy goals rather than deep and meaningful considerations of fundamental principles. In any event, there were still those who believed that Cameron was simply a closet Thatcherite, in much the same way as a previous generation had dismissed Thatcher as 'Edward Heath in a skirt', and that it thus was the same old Tory Party underneath, whilst the Liberal Democrats had long been regarded as the home of the weirdie beardie nutters who wanted to ban the bomb, save the whale, and supported whatever trendy cause had made the front page of The Independent that day, and were thus supposed to regarded the Conservatives with same degree of contempt as the typical Labour activist.
All of which meant that there was a considerable portion of British public opinion, informed or otherwise, who believed that there was some kind of coherent anti-Conservative majority that would automatically come into being in the event of a hung parliament, and it would therefore be necessary to understand why the Liberal Democrats failed to make a deal with Labour, despite the fact that it apparently remained the preferred option for many.
The first reason was that, whilst the likes of The Guardian and The Independent simply assumed that the Labour Party was ready to grant proportional representation in return for the support of the Liberal Democrats, this was as Martin Salter (the outgoing Labour MP for Reading West) put it "fantasy politics", if only because the typical Labour MP was just as, if not more, opposed to proportional representation than his Conservative counterpart. It was just simply never going to happen; the peasants, or at least the backbenchers, would have revolted.
The second reason was simply that much of the Labour Party wanted to go into opposition. Let us put it this way; contrary to any impression that might have been given by Labour during the election campaign, not one of the three parties disputed the fact that public expenditure would have to be cut. The argument wasn't about if, but about how much, and when. It therefore might be understandable why many in the Labour Party preferred the idea of letting the Conservatives (with or without the Liberal Democrats on board) get on with the business of enacting the necessary cuts, and then blame them for the pain suffered in the process. (Which of course, cynics would argue, was what the Labour Party did last time round and subsequently blamed Margaret Thatcher for all the ills of the nation thereafter.)
The third reason was that whilst the 'traffic light coalition' might well have delivered a government of sorts, given that it would have been composed of a half dozen or so assorted political groupings, it would have been inherently instable, particularly as there was no certainty as to who would be leading the Labour Party, the major component of the proposed coalition. Or to put it another way, far from being a 'masterstroke' that opened the door to a possible Labour-Lib Dem deal, Brown's resignation was rather the kiss of death to such a possibility, as how could the Liberal Democrats seal a deal with a party that was going to be under different management in six months time?
Or to put it bluntly, many in the Labour Party preferred the soft option of going into opposition in order to spend the next five years 'fighting the cuts', rather than face the daunting prospect of keeping together a ragbag coalition struggling to achieve those self same cuts. As one "senior Lib Dem source" said of his party's talks with Labour; they were "amicable" but there were problems with "deliverability and Labour cohesion" which was another way of saying that there was no realistic prospect of securing any kind of agreement.
On the other hand the Liberal Democrats appear to have been surprised that Cameron's "big, open and comprehensive offer" was in fact a genuine offer, whilst the negotiations themselves appear to have been an eye-opener for many in the party. Simon Hughes, a self-confessed member of the "radical centre-left" of the Liberal Democrats called it a "surprising coming together", and even Paddy Ashdown said that the Conservatives now "seemed to understand the demand from the electorate for a new kind of politics better than many in Old Labour, and responded to it with speed, understanding and a good deal of statesmanship" and went on to say that "those of us who learnt our politics in opposition to the Tory party of the Thatcher era found this surprising, and in some cases even quite hard to deal with".
A Very British Revolution
Apparently some twelve million people watched David Cameron's motorcade proceeding on its way to and from Buckingham Palace. Although it is entirely possible that most of them were simply wondering what had happened to Eastenders, it is likely that a number were watching just to simply check that Cameron was actually going to be Prime Minister.
The prospect of a coalition government was also greeted with a certain amount of surprise and bewilderment, which only increased on the following day when Nick Clegg and David Cameron gave a joint press conference in the rose garden of 10 Downing Street, which at times appeared less of a press conference and more like the pilot episode of the Dave and Nick Show, as the nation contemplated the sight of two politicians from different parties who actually seemed to get along together.
It wasn't so much that the British were necessarily that averse to forming coalition governments, it was just that nothing like this had happened for a long time, and there was a certain novelty value in the idea that two political parties could set aside their differences and actually work together for the good of the country. Matthew Paris said that it "was like witnessing a coup" and that it was "two men staging a putsch against their own parties, against the entire British political system, and against the ingrained assumptions of more than a century of parliamentary government".
Jonathan Freedland wrote that a "new, mischievous thought dawns" (and which had dawned on others as well) which was that "maybe a Con-Lib Dem coalition" was "precisely what Cameron, and a small circle around him, wanted all along". That might well be taking things a little too far, but it might be fair to say that Cameron had anticipated that a hung parliament was a possibility, had a clear idea of what action to take in that eventuality, and turned what might have been seen as a problem into an opportunity. It was certainly widely believed that the coalition was Cameron's way of neutralising or at least marginalising the so-called 'Conservative Right', who had never been that happy with the Cameron project and would have preferred a more gung-ho slash-and-burn approach to the deficit. Thus there were some within the Conservative Party who regarded the deal as a "betrayal" of basic principles. The Daily Mail Fraction were particularly incensed that a Conservative government now intended to increase both Capital Gains Tax and Air Passenger Duty which it saw as an 'attack on the middle classes' being as how they would now have to pay more tax on the sale of their 'modest' second homes and their annual family holidays in Tuscany.
In the same way there were Liberal Democrats who complained that they'd only voted for the party to 'keep the Tories out' and thus they'd also been 'betrayed' by Clegg. The Guardian
did its best to drum up as many anti-coalition Liberal Democrats as it could, although when the rank and file finally gathered at a special conference in Birmingham
on the 16th May 2010 they duly endorsed the coalition with only about fifty dissenting voices amongst the 1,500 delegates, and within the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party itself only Charles Kennedy
voiced any doubts on the deal, and even then he only went so far as to abstain on the issue.
The bickering concerning the negotiation process continued. The Liberal Democrats blamed Labour for the failure of their inter-party talks; Paddy Ashdown said the deal had been "wrecked" by the "old Neanderthals in Labour", whilst Labour blamed the Liberal Democrats and believed that it was all simply a pretence in order to wring more concessions from the Conservatives. Peter Mandelson sounded almost bewildered as he complained that the Liberal Democrats had created "so many different barriers and obstacles" that he wondered if they hadn't already made up their minds. Various newspapers claimed to have discovered the inside story on the various party talks. The News of the World claimed that Vincent Cable tried to 'block' George Osborne's appointment as Chancellor and then refused to serve under him at the Treasury; the Mail on Sunday claimed that Nick Clegg had telephoned Gordon Brown on the evening that he resigned and begged him to persevere with talks about a Lib-Lab coalition; The Times claimed that Clegg had told Gordon Brown that he feared that Liberal Democrat members would resign "in droves" if he signed up with the Conservative. And so on and so forth, some of which might have been true, and some of which likely wasn't.
After all it was entirely possible that Clegg and Cameron had already sealed the deal together, and that the Labour talks were simply nothing more than a journey that Clegg knew his party had to take. He had to respond to the Labour offer, and he had to allow his party to sit down with Labour, so that they could see that Labour really had nothing to offer, or as Alex Massie later put it in The Spectator, it was Clegg's "willingness to talk to Labour" that "allowed Labour to show Liberal Democrat MPs that a deal with the Tories is the only show in town worth buying a ticket for".
Elsewhere the opinion polls seemed to show a 60% approval rating for the coalition government, and it was quite possible that the ordinary person aboard the Clapham omnibus took the view that both David Cameron and Nick Clegg had simply behaved in the way that grown-up politicians ought to behave. They'd sat down together, decided that the most important thing was to form a government that was capable of actually governing, and then done just that. Some people viewed this as quite a hopeful sign.
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- Simon Jenkins, Watch closely, fluffy bunnies of electoral reform, The Guardian, Saturday 8 May 2010
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