The Last Post: Chapter Five

AN ALTERNATE HISTORY by NASH

Johnson B+W

“The Last Post” is a counter-factual, or “alternate history” scenario. It is published in weekly instalments here on Things Can Only Get Better. It is a work of fiction, of speculation, and of a certain amount of wish fulfilment. All quotes and references are “in-universe”.

Previous chapters are indexed here.

Chapter Five: Negotiation

8th May 2010

The Sun08-05-2010

d

SQUATTER, 59, HOLED UP IN NO. 10

“A man aged fifty-nine was squatting in a luxury home near the Houses of Parliament last night…”

* * * * *

“This was one of those few occasions when non-political friends would ask me about political events. What was going on? Why had nobody “won” the election? Why wasn’t there a result yet? Suddenly they were turning to me to explain constitutional procedure even more complex than the US Electoral College. I tried to make the most of it.”

– Edward Groves, Labour Activist.

* * * * *

Daily Mail 07-05-2010

‘AAA’ CREDIT RATING ‘UNDER THREAT’ AFTER ELECTION STALEMATE

“Britain’s AAA credit rating is being threatened as the Conservatives failed to win a decisive election victory. The markets are concerned that a weak or dithering government will fail to deal with the £163 billion debt. Sterling was down against the dollar and euro and shares tumbled as the political stalemate unfolded. ‘On the basis of the election outcome, a downgrade looks to be the most likely outcome,; said Alan Clarke, UK economist at BNP Paribas.”

* * * * *

“Our late night meeting with the Conservative team had been remarkably warm and constructive. It was a team which was not only very senior, and which clearly had the full confidence of David Cameron, but which also turned out to be able to engage in a sensible, mature and respectful way with our team. We were yet to see if the Labour Party could also offer these things.”

– David Laws, 2010. 20 Days in May.

* * * * *

“By Saturday morning the pressure for official Lab-Lib talks was becoming irresistible. Not only had GB been pushing for it from the start, but even the newspapers were asking awkward questions of Nick Clegg. That sudden knife edge result in seats had set the Westminster bubble into a flurry. Sound clips of Clegg’s “the largest party” declaration were being played over video of the Liberal Democrat negotiating team leaving talks with the Conservatives. Of course the Conservative-supporting press had no enthusiasm for a Lab-Lib coalition, but they were only too happy to weaken Nick Clegg wherever and whenever they could.”[1]

Andrew Adonis, 2013. 7 Days in May

* * * * *

“Preliminary talks between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat teams had gone very well indeed. Despite obvious differences on European policy and on electoral reform, the teams reached a remarkable accord on economic policy and the need for deficit reduction. Just as Nick Clegg and David Cameron had built a rapport through their secret post-election phone calls, so their respective teams built a rapport around the negotiating table. This accord was likely helped by the relative closeness in ideology of the two teams – the Liberal Democrat representatives were predominantly from the “Orange Book” wing of their party, economically as well as socially liberal. They found easy agreement with a team of Conservatives heavily involved in the Cameron project to shift their own party to a more moderate social position.”

E.L. Jones, 2011. Coalition: The Week that Changed Britain.

* * * * *

11:00 – Party Leaders lay wreaths at cenotaph for 65th Anniversary of V.E. Day

cenotaph

13:00 – Meeting of Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party.

“John Thurso said that the national interest really must come first… Lorely Burt said that she did not think that putting Labour back into power was a serious prospect, and Jenny Williot told us she was against a Lib-Lab pact. Chris Huhne, Tom McNally and Don Foster wanted to keep the option in play…”

David Laws, 20 Days in May.

* * * * *

“That meeting of the parliamentary party, while less rowdy than Clegg and his lieutenants had feared, still murmured with an undercurrent of dissent. At this moment in history all options appeared open to their leader, and yet each member of the party had his or her own preferred course. Clegg’s dilemma was how to please, if not all of the people, then at least all of the Lib Dems, all of the time.”

Barney Rose, 2019. A History of the Liberal Democrats (1988-2016).

* * * * *

guardian 08-05-2010

ELECTION LIVEBLOG

“Lib Dem MPs have allowed Clegg to continue talks with the Tories. David Laws issued a statement saying the parliamentary party had “endorsed in full and completely” Clegg’s approach. We don’t know yet what they really think of it all. But from Clegg’s point of view – at least there has not been an open revolt. Lib Dem MPs could have come out of the meeting saying a deal with the Tories was unthinkable. They didn’t. Clegg still has the support of his MPs.”

* * * * *

15:00 – Formal Labour-Liberal Democrat talks begin.

“By the time I arrived, the Labour team of Peter Mandelson, Andrew Adonis, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband were seated on one side of the large hexagonal table, with Danny Alexander, Chris Huhne and Andrew Stunell on the other.”

David Laws, 20 Days in May.

* * * * *

“Our opening talks with the Lib Dem team, led by Danny, got off to a better start than might otherwise have been the case. Peter for whatever reasons, had experienced a major turnaround in feeling over the previous few days. He led our team with the zeal of a convert to Lib-Labbery, strongly supported by Andrew the long-time true believer. Ed had somehow been reigned in and was mostly quiet, bristling only occasionally when education policy – at the time his portfolio – was mentioned. We wanted this to work.”[2]

– Ed Miliband, 2020. Blue Labour.

* * * * *

“The striking thing about Ed [Miliband] was that while he was a member of the Brown inner team, he had somehow managed to remain courteous, civilised, unaggressive and thoughtful. Indeed, it seemed difficult to imagine how he had survived so long with Gordon, Charlie Whelan, Ed Balls and the rest of Gordon’s rather brutal gang. As a consequence of being decent, polite, reasonable and somewhat geekish, Ed had never seemed likely to rise to the very top of his party. His elbows did not seem sharp enough.”

– David Laws, 2010. 20 Days in May.

* * * * *

“Gordon Brown has had a good run and whilst he was an excellent chancellor he has been seen as a poor prime minister who is out of touch and aloof. Labour lost votes because of this.”

– John Mann MP.

* * * * *

guardian08-05-2010.

“Mann, who was re-elected as MP for Bassetlaw, is the first backbencher to speak out since polling day.”

9th May 2010

“DON’T CON-DEM US NICK!”[3]

Placard outside Liberal Democrat HQ

11:00 – Conservatives and Liberal Democrats meet.

“Day two of the negotiations went badly for the Conservative team. Expectations had been raised perhaps a little too high by the preliminary talks, as the Liberal Democrat’s seemed all too eager to agree on economic policy. Laws and Alexander were themselves advocates of fiscal responsibility, and Osborne was willing to concede on policies such as the Pupil Premium and raising the tax allowance. Both parties were also ready to strike a bargain on cutting the number of MPs – perhaps the one area of constitutional reform where they saw eye to eye. Electoral reform however, was to be a non-starter, and the big elephant in the room was to be Europe.”

– E.L. Jones, 2011. Coalition: The Week that Changed Britain.

* * * * *

“Cable was very much the odd one out of the Liberal Democrat coalition negotiation team. Formally he was not a member of that team at all – not sitting in on any of the high level talks. Yet his role was to be in many ways pivotal. While Laws, Alexander et al. were sat around a table, and Clegg was waiting with anticipation by the phone, Vince was in the treasury with Alastair Darling.

“A popular myth among those who worked in Lib Dem HQ at the time – indeed a tale alluded to in several memoirs – is that Vince was dissuaded from even meeting with Darling. The tale goes that an official government car was sent to Cable’s home in Twickenham, and that Clegg instructed his treasury spokesman to turn it down. He did so, but on the misunderstanding that it was the car itself that was the problem, as a rather presumptuous means of transport. Instead Vince travelled by taxi to Whitehall where he had what were by all accounts very frank and constructive talks with the incumbent Chancellor.”[4]

– S.Tall, 2024. The Last Radical: The life of Dr Vince Cable.

12:00 – Cable meets Darling at Treasury

“Getting Vince to meet with Alastair was obviously a massive PR coup. The meeting was officially “secret”, but the press had somehow got wind of it. When Dr Cable emerged from the Treasury after three hours the whole of Fleet Street and new media was camped on the steps. Vince took it in good humour – he has a refreshingly honest and easygoing temperament, sometimes bordering on passiveness. Alastair had even extended an invitation to Vince to join him in Brussels. Naturally it had been declined, but the sincerity of the offer was clearly noted.”

– Peter Mandelson, 2013. The Third Man.

* * * * *

“Europe had been an obsession of the Conservative Party since before the 1990s. While they only became manifest into open intra-party warfare during the tenure of John Major, anti-European Community and later anti-EU sentiment went back to Macmillan’s failed entry attempt. That sentiment – with the pedigree of Powell, Tebbit, Thatcher, Portillo and Duncan Smith – now bubbled up again. Just as Chancellor Darling flew to Brussels to meet with other European finance ministers, the Eurosceptic press was dredging up old speeches made by Clegg during his term as an MEP. Tory backbenchers were also openly condemning any weakening of European policy. William Hague, respected former leader and shadow foreign secretary, was able to be more pragmatic as a member of the Conservative negotiating team; and yet there was clearly a sense that any policy concession in this area would be a concession too far.”

– Alan Marshall, 2016. The Shire Revolt.

Observer 09-05-2010

TORY-LIB DEM COALITION THREATENED BY SECRET HARDLINE MEMO ON EUROPE.

“David Cameron’s hopes of forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats were dramatically undermined last night by the leaking of a top-secret letter outlining the hardline Eurosceptic stance he and William Hague planned to adopt in government…”

* * * * *

“But voting reform for Westminster as always going to be the toughest issue to secure agreement on. In his statement on Friday 7 May, David Cameron had offered us ‘an all-party inquiry on political and electoral reform’. It was to be the weakest part of the Conservative pitch, as David Cameron must have known… There was simply no way that the Lib Dems would ever go into coalition on the basis of some vague and unbankable offer on fair voting…

“Such a proposal therefore had as much chance of being approved by Lib Dem MPs and the party’s special conference as a plan to build 1,000 coal-fired power stations in south-west England. There wasn’t the remotest chance of attracting the support of Lib Dem MPs for such a proposition, and nor should there have been.

“David Cameron must have known that we could not agree to such a proposition. The issue was could we break the logjam?”[5]

– David Laws, 2010. 20 Days in May.

* * * * *

Observer 08-05-2010.

IT’S THIS WAY A ROCK AND THAT WAY A HARD PLACE FOR THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS – Andrew Rawnsley.

“With Gordon Brown and David Cameron competing to win his favours, Nick Clegg faces a hideous conundrum…”

* * * * *

“The four of us adults spent the next few hours delving into the policy issues for the next negotiating session with the Lib Dems. This had been tentatively scheduled for 6.30 p.m., after the Clegg-GB meeting and the second negotiating session between the Lib Dems and the Tories, due to start at 11am.

“Gordon had emailed overnight with a plan on how to get to the Lib Dem’s £10,000 tax threshold in stages over a parliament, starting with pensioners. We were also deciding how much ground we could give on Home Office issues in particular. Abandoning ID cards wasn’t a particular problem; they were now voluntary and Alan Johnson was not wedded to them except for foreign nationals…”

Andrew Adonis, 2013. 7 Days in May.

* * * * *

16:00 – Brown meets Clegg at Foreign Office.

RICKETTS ACCORD: Meeting between Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg on 9th May 2010. Named for the Permanent Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, Sir Peter Ricketts. A foundation for subsequent Labour-Liberal Democrat agreements.

– Kier Robinson, 2018. An Encyclopaedia of Recent British Political History

* * * * *

“The venue for the Clegg-Brown meeting was changed to the Foreign Office… According to GB’s later account to me, Nick Clegg said that he would definitely make a decision one way or another between the Tories and Labour. He would not sit on the fence, and he was determined only to support a progressive pro-European government. (Europe was a key issue in many of the Brown-Clegg discussions and often appeared to be of greatest concern to Nick personally.) He said his preferment was for coalition, not a looser arrangement, because otherwise it was bound to collapse and the Lib Dems would be wiped out in the subsequent election. But he hadn’t yet decided which party to support. There were still ‘semi-serious problems’ about working with the Tories. On policy, he thought he was closer to Labour, but there were ‘legitimacy’ issues about a deal with Labour and with GB personally.

“They ended by agreeing to consider further all they had discussed, and to speak again soon, probably later in the day, there had been one further significant exchange. As they chatted about their backgrounds and what had brought them into politics, Nick remarked: ‘I wish we’d had the chance to get to know each other better before.’ ”[6]

– Andrew Adonis, 2013. 7 Days in May.

* * * * *

18:30 – Second meeting between Labour and Liberal Democrat teams.

“Whatever misgivings Ed [Balls] had about talking with the Lib Dems, by Sunday evening he had successfully put them aside. Some inside the Labour party have suggested, unfairly in my view, that he was willing the talks to fail and that his career would be best advanced by opposition. Such suggestions are unjust and such speculation is clearly unfounded, as attested by Ed’s subsequent success.

In any case, our meeting with the Lib Dem team was very positive. Alan was happy for us to drop ID cards – a policy hangover from the Blair era which he and myself had never really been that keen on. On the economy we were closer to the Lib Dems than the Tories were – especially after the treasury meeting. The Ricketts Accord had basically sealed the deal on Europe and on Gordon’s departure. On electoral reform I was pretty sure we could make a deal, or at least make a better offer than the Tories. Some in the PLP would resist, but I was sure they’d see it as a price worth paying for remaining in government. At the time I thought that the Lib Dem’s position on reducing carbon emissions, as pushed heavily by Chris Huhne, was a little optimistic; but this was my area and it wasn’t too hard to reach consensus. After all, we were both going in the same direction.”

– Ed Miliband, 2020. Blue Labour.

* * * * *

“By the evening of Sunday 9th, it looked as if it was the Labour team who had the initiative. With remarkable unity they had rallied and wooed the Liberal Democrats. Paddy Ashdown, known to be in close contact with Nick Clegg throughout those few days, appeared on Newsnight to give warm views on the likelihood of a “Lib-Lab” agreement. Others, mostly from the old social democrat wing of the party such as Baroness Williams and Ming Campbell, were openly advocating a deal. David Laws and the rest of the formal negotiating team were notably more poker-faced, and yet it was obvious which way the wind was blowing. Only a major gamble by David Cameron could change the game.”

– E.L. Jones, 2011. Coalition: The Week that Changed Britain.

* * * * *

“It was 2.11 a.m. when Paddy left a voicemail message on my Blackberry. ‘Hi Andrew, it’s Paddy here with David Laws. We’ve got a bit of a crisis and I need to speak to you urgently.’ Deep asleep, I didn’t hear the Blackberry’s vibration. Nor did I hear it again at 5.37 a.m. when a text arrived from Switch [the Downing Street switchboard]: ‘Please come in at 06:30. Gordon.’ But as I read both messages at 6 a.m., the connection wasn’t hard to fathom. Nor the likely drama of the day ahead.”

– Andrew Adonis, 2013. 7 Days in May.

To be continued…

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One Response to The Last Post: Chapter Five

  1. Nash says:

    Footnotes

    5.1 – Something Clegg says before the election becomes a liability after it. Fancy that… At the same time its likely that the right-wing press would be shrieking about Labour winning more seats but fewer votes than the Tories, whilst also indulging in cognitive dissonance by condemning any alternative to “First-past-the post” as a “chattering class obsession”.

    5.2 – Adonis’ account of the coalition negotiations paints Mandelson as sceptical and pessimistic about the odds of success, yet all the while serving the coalition cause with a grim loyalty. With those odds significantly shortened, I can easily imagine someone who has been working to get the Labour Party into government and keep it their since 1987 eagerly seizing this much better opportunity.

    5.3 – This was original once.

    5.4 – This is historical, up to the point of Cable actually meeting with Darling. Cable was actually told to reject the invitation, and he made the same mistake thinking that the rejection was to apply only to the ministerial car. Here advice on his attendance, amidst a more positive Lab-Lib atmosphere – is more mixed, and he makes it to the Treasury.

    5.5 – This excerpt is entirely historical, and is perhaps the most anti-Tory part of Laws’ entire account. In reality the issue was worked around, with the full offer of a referendum on AV, though in hindsight three years on the Lib Dems still effectively got nothing on electoral reform.

    5.6 – This happened it actual history. It was just never positively briefed about by the Liberal Democrats.

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