In my book 22 Days in May, I set out how Britain's first coalition government since the Second World War was established and I touch upon some of the key decisions made in the government's early days. One of the reasons for my inclusion in our hung Parliament team was that I was one of the few Liberal Democrats who already had experience of coalitionforming, when I helped our Scottish party to form the first ‘partnership government' in the new Scottish Parliament in 1999.
Forming a coalition government in Scotland had not been at all easy, in spite of the fact that a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition seemed almost the only plausible out-turn, and had done for some time. In Scotland, the negotiations were tough and time-consuming for a number of reasons - the Labour Party was hopelessly unprepared and was slow to make any concessions, the talks took a long time to begin, and the Liberal Democrats had a large number of MSPs and senior party members who were fundamentally opposed to coalition on almost any terms.
If the coalition in Scotland was difficult to establish in 1999, the post-election situation in the UK in 2010 looked to many of us as if it could be even more tricky. There would be a wider range of policy issues to resolve between the parties, the strategic decisions facing the parties would appear to be much more difficult than they were in Scotland in 1999 and it would be potentially even more difficult to secure the consent of party members, not least within the Liberal Democrats.
As it was, the formation of the 2010 coalition proved to be remarkably straightforward, and took just five days - the shortest period in which I thought this could be achieved. There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, Nick Clegg had prepared very effectively, but very discretely, for a hung Parliament scenario. We had a clear view about our policy negotiating strategy and priorities, a team established in readiness to negotiate, which had worked closely together for months, and a carefully co-ordinated process for internal party consultations.
Secondly, the Conservatives, our principal potential coalition partners given the numbers of seats, seemed to make an early decision to aim for coalition, and to do so in a frank, open and constructive manner. They came to the table very early on with a willingness to talk and to compromise, which was in sharp contrast with the attitudes of Labour's teams both in 1999 and in 2010. They understood clearly what our negotiating bottom lines were and made a real effort to build trust and confidence. Indeed, both sides helped to build this trust by maintaining a very tight control over the confidentiality of negotiations, and avoiding spinning against each other.
Thirdly, the general post-election environment was conducive to the swift and responsible formation of a government. This was because of the state of economic mess facing the country and because, more brutally, the electoral arithmetic meant that there was a real, if outside, possibility of a Lib-Lab coalition, which increased the chances of concessions needing to be made that could make a coalition deliverable for my party.
Thus it was that the coalition was formed rapidly, without rancor, and with an astonishing degree of support both within the Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties. Indeed, not one single Liberal Democrat MP or peer voted against the coalition agreement. The warm and constructive approach between the Lib Dem and Conservative teams carried on into government. This was reinforced by the trust built up between David Cameron and Nick Clegg during the coalition talks.
And although the extent of public spending cuts needed to reduce the deficit was something which no Liberal Democrat MP would relish, there was a clear understanding in my party of the economic risks facing the country, and the need for early and decisive action. My colleagues were, of course, concerned that we should protect the key Liberal Democrat priority areas, including investing in schools and delivering a higher tax-free personal allowance, but they all accepted the need to make some pretty tough decisions to deal with our £150bn annual deficit.
Nick Clegg and David Cameron know, of course, that there will be challenges in holding together a coalition over its full five-year term. But the events of 7-11 May are a model of good coalition-forming, which have also established a sound base for both parties to work together over the years to come. This is a coalition which was built to last.
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