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Review: Coalition, by David Laws

April 22, 2016 11:31 AM
By Nick Thornbury in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

CoalitionCoalition: The Inside Story of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government (Biteback; £25)

If journalistic reportage is the first rough draft of history, then the politicians' memoir has a good claim to be the second - at least as far as contemporary political history is concerned.

Few are better placed to give the inside account of the UK's first national coalition in living memory than David Laws. Laws was at the heart of the coalition before it had even been conceived, as part of a small Lib Dem team preparing for a hung parliament, and was then one of four Liberal Democrats to make up the party's negotiating team when possibility became a reality in May 2010. From thereon in he bore witness to every significant decision made over the next five years, even though two of those years were ostensibly spent on the backbenches.

Laws has two other advantages, too. The first is the intelligence and insight that has earned him respect across the Lib Dem party - even from those with whom he often disagrees - and beyond. The second is his proximity to Nick Clegg, who allowed Laws access to his papers from his time as deputy prime minister in the preparation of this book.

All of that meant that expectations were high for Laws's account; fortunately, he not only meets them but surpasses them in almost every respect.

The question posed by Laws in the book - explicitly in the final chapter, but implicitly throughout - is the one that every Liberal Democrats has asked in the last year: was it worth it? In answering that question Laws cannot be accused of shying away from the impact that coalition had on the party: the first chapter depicts in painful detail his own electoral defeat in Yeovil (2010 majority: 13,000).

But nor does Laws's conclusion come as any great surprise. As the architect of the project, and having played a crucial role in its delivery, Laws's case is very simple: a day in government is better than many hundreds in opposition.

And the case is persuasively put. On almost every page of the book, Liberal Democrat ministers are blocking Conservative ministers' plans - from billions of pounds additional welfare cuts to at-will firing of employees - and implementing Liberal Democrat policies that go beyond even the contents of our 2010 manifesto. At the end of the book is a chronological summary of every key Lib Dem achievement in government. It is difficult to read it and come to a different conclusion to Laws.

But even in the exercise of setting out the many Lib Dem wins, Laws highlights one of the crucial problems the party had in government. Whilst our government ministers were making decisions every day of the week - both blocking Tory plans and implementing Lib Dem priorities - that were in themselves significant, they were inevitably often technical decisions that would do little to help us politically.

And even when we were responsible for the big decisions in government - significant increases in the income tax personal allowance, the pupil premium and protection of schools funding, major pension reforms - they were often announced in financial statements (budgets, autumn statements and spending reviews) with great flourish by George Osborne, even when a matter of days earlier he had been opposing them and pushing Conservative priorities (generally tax cuts for the well-off and welfare cuts for the poorest). Indeed, George Osborne's political guile (and ambivalence towards the less fortunate) is a frequent topic of the book.

The frustration that Laws and other senior Liberal Democrats felt at this throughout the coalition is palpable, but it is fair to say it is a circle that was never squared. In the end, Nick Clegg simply stopped turning up to Osborne's big speeches.

There is plenty in the book, too, on the personalities that made up the coalition. Those personalities, Laws accepts, were often crucial to the government's success - the ability in particular of Cameron, Clegg, Osborne, Alexander, Laws and Letwin to get things done was plainly very important. Much of the media coverage of the book has unsurprisingly focussed on Laws's observations on Conservatives - the prime minister and Iain Duncan Smith in particular - and there is certainly much insight there. Indeed, David Cameron is probably the person who has gone down most in my estimation having read the book.

But there is plenty to interest Lib Dems in particular, too. Nick Clegg is portrayed sympathetically, and much more privately self-critical than his public confidence would often have suggested. From 2012 onwards he was not infrequently asking himself and those around him whether it would be better for the party for him to stand aside and allow a new leader to take over.

Danny Alexander, too, comes across well. Alexander, of course, took over Laws's job as chief secretary to the Treasury in 2010 and remained there until the end of the coalition, and whilst there is the occasional critique of Alexander as having absorbed a little too much Treasury orthodoxy, he is in general seen as a voraciously hard worker and a crucial figure in the implementation of Liberal Democrat policy priorities time and again. He is also credited as playing a perhaps determinative behind the scenes role in keeping the United Kingdom together during the Scottish independence referendum.

Other Liberal Democrats (Chris Huhne, for instance) fare somewhat less well. Vince Cable's presence is often as a rather less than cheerful one around the Cabinet table - even in the later stages of the coalition once the economy had begun to pick up. The relationship between Cable and Clegg was not always the happiest, particular at (the hardly irregular) times when Cable was publicly critical of aspects of coalition economic policy. Indeed, Paddy Ashdown is recalled at one point as having called for Vince to be sacked for expressing such divergent views (privately Laws was more sympathetic, particularly in 2011-12, and fought for a more creative economic policy).

On at least two occasions - once successfully, once not - Laws argues against Clegg's plan to sack Jeremy Browne from his ministerial positions. His eventual sacking led to a significant deterioration in Browne and Clegg's relationship, though on Laws's account Clegg's decision to sack him appears not to have been a personal one.

With a book such as this the author has to choose carefully the amount of detail included. Running to nearly 600 pages, one could never say that Laws's account lacks detail, and it is clearly inevitably aimed primarily at a more general, non-Liberal-Democrat audience. But some parts of the book will, I suspect, leave Lib Dems feeling that they want to know more - such as the account of the crucial 2013 autumn conference decision on economic policy, which the leadership won. But that would be to make it a quite different book.

Laws's own role, too, is occasionally underplayed. For instance, it is now easy to forget that the early period of the coalition government was characterised by relatively high inflation, thanks to global food and oil prices and an increase in VAT. In 2011, before Laws returned to government, a decision had to be taken about the level of the following year's increase in index-linked welfare benefits, which traditionally rise by whatever the level of inflation the previous September. In September 2011 the rate was 5.2%: an increase of this magnitude was not a happy prospect from the Treasury perspective. However, Laws was firmly of the view that it would be quite wrong to give many of the poorest and most vulnerable people a real-terms benefits cut, and made his case strongly to the Lib Dem leadership. He was ultimately successful and recipients received their 5.2% increase. What Laws doesn't detail is exactly how this was achieved, which involved a (presumably carefully) leaked letter from Laws to Nick Clegg making the case for the 5.2% increase, which appeared in the Financial Times in November 2011.

Given the proximity of events, it is perhaps inevitable that the reader does not get the inside story of every bit of politicking that went on: there has to be something left for the historians to uncover.

The dust-jacket (orange and blue, of course) of Laws's book contains this endorsement from Times columnist and former Conservative MP Matthew Parris: "There are few - even from within my own party - whose inside story of the 2010-15 coalition I would trust more than David Laws's." I would always have agreed with that, but Laws's masterful account only confirms me in the view. Laws, like many Liberal Democrats, paid a heavy price for his role in the coalition, but he is clear that even with the benefit of hindsight it "was a price I was and am willing to pay". His account of the reasons why will likely stand as the definitive case for those of us for whom the answer to the question of whether it was worth it is still - despite everything - an unequivocal yes.

You can buy the book here.

* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.