On Tuesday I attended a fascinating seminar at Portcullis House on the nuts and bolts of the Coalition negotiations in May. The speakers were Lib Dem David Laws and Tory MP Rob Wilson, both of whom are peddling their respective books on the subject*. For me, it was a unique chance to get a perspective from people who were ‘in the thick of it’.
A blow-by-blow account of the evening has been done by a Lib Dem blogger here and I wont try to better that. I will just summarise my take-away points:
- The Lib Dems were genuinely knocked backwards by their election showing. Nothing in their private polling had led them to expect so few seats. Before polls closed Danny Alexander (then Clegg’s chief-of-staff) was briefing his colleagues to expect 80-85 seats. He was way out.
- The Lib Dems were between a rock and a hard place. Although many of their key players would have felt more comfortable in a ‘progressive coalition’ with Labour – the Parliamentary maths and Labour’s attitude made that a no-go. At the same time if they couldn’t form a coalition with the Conservatives we would enter a period of unstable Government with another election in November. They reasoned a) they would do worse and b) a short-lived impotent hung parliament would be very damaging to their long term aspiration for PR – a system which would lead to hung parliaments as the norm rather than the exception.
- The Labour party machine seemed to have done literally no planning for the eventuality of a hung parliament. Laws had the sense they were making it up as they went along – a sense that Wilson confirmed through his interviews with the key players on their team.
- The Conservatives had done proper planning for the Hung Parliament scenario. They were very quick to produce a document that conceded so much the Lib Dems had no choice but to take them seriously. Laws’ view was that the Tories essentially came into discussions with a ‘cut-to-the-chase’ final position. The only thing that was unacceptable in the first offer was on electoral reform (the proposal being to simply to set up another Commission to look at the subject). I pressed Laws on whether with hindsight – if the Tories showed they had wiggle room on Electoral reform, perhaps there was wiggle room on other areas had he pushed harder. He didn’t think so. I personally do wonder. Wilson made the point that for many, if not most Tories the ‘key concessions’ – the no tax on first £10k and the pupil premium were not any wrench to concede – most would have loved those policies in their manifesto in the first place.
- Laws and the Lib Dems struggled in the negotiations to figure out how to navigate so much so quickly whilst still staying within their internal party processes. When Laws observed the Conservative Party was spared these constraints with the leader being an effective ‘absolute monarchy’ William Hague knowingly shot back that the check and balance was “our monarchy is qualified by frequent regicide”.
- On the final day Brown had lost the plot so much he even offered the Lib Dems 50% of Cabinet seats.
It was a good event and the second time that I have heard Laws speak. He does impress and seems a very good counter-balance to the more loony fringes in the Lib Dem party. It underlined for me the sadness that through his wrong-doing he excluded himself from Cabinet. If you do the wrong thing for the right reasons, you still do the wrong thing. His replacement is not half as able. I noted yesterday that Cameron was asked if he wanted Laws back: “Yes, and soon” was the reply. On reflection, I could live with that.