Book review: Coalition
This is the first serious account of inside the Coalition from a Lib Dem perspective and helps to complement accounts by Seldon and Snowden from the Conservative point of view.
David Laws was the Liberal Democrat MP for Yeovil from 2001 to 2015. He helped negotiate the historic Lib Dem – Conservative Coalition in 2010. He was appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury before being caught up in a Parliament expenses scandal and resigned.
Laws continued to give advice to Clegg who he was close to, and was then brought back into government wearing two hats, as Minister of State for Schools in the Department for Education and Minister of State for the Cabinet Office.
Laws makes quite clear that his purpose was to give an account of what he sees as the positive contribution made by the Lib Dems and the sacrifices they made to be in a Coalition government.
This account is based upon the private papers and records (and diary?) kept by Clegg as well as a diary and papers kept by Laws. These must have been quite detailed as there are extensive verbatim conversations recorded.
This is a substantial book and will be a valuable reference to any future account of the Coalition. There may be some disputes about some of the conversations recorded and opinions expressed but on the whole they appear to be accurate.
Laws comes across as an intelligent, dedicated politician, who was motivated by a desire to improve life chances for the poorest sections of society and committed to private enterprise and opportunity.
Some of the best political memoirs and diaries have been kept by junior ministers who, nevertheless, had access to the inner workings of government and the Prime Minister – think Alan Clark and Chris Mullin.
In Laws' case he was a personal friend and ally of Clegg and when recalled to the colours used his twin ministerial responsibilities to exercise influence and change – at education opportunity for children from deprived backgrounds and at the Cabinet office, effectively a “County” member of the Quad – Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Alexander – along with the cerebral Oliver Letwin.
This book is well written, reads well, and is on the whole a balanced account. Whilst not resiling from a LibDem position Laws is perceptive and judicious when looking at policies and personalities. His criticism of individuals is usually balanced with praise of their achievements and motivation, whether it is Michael Gove or Vince Cable. He makes shrewd assessments of both Cameron and Osborne, and whilst seeing Osborne as a hard nosed transactional politician, warms to him as a colleague.
Many of the issues covered by Laws – the deficit, the balance between tax and expenditure, intervention in foreign policy, the debate over the EU, have a resonance today. Laws is able to bring alive everyday politics with asides and observations which at times make the reader laugh out loud.
Cameron allegedly describing Gove as “a cross between Jeeves and Che Guevara or the notice on the exit door between No 10 and the Cabinet Office saying “No Cats Beyond this Point” – an effort to prevent the Chancellor’s cat Freya from going awol in Whitehall.
Laws is surely correct to say that whatever the reservations of some Lib Dem and Conservative MPs it was right for their Parties to enter into a Coalition.
In retrospect, despite errors of judgement and many spats, the Coalition worked surprisingly well down to 2015 even if the ultimate sacrifice was paid by the majority of Lib Dem MPs, including David Laws himself.