Book review: Coalition

Written by Tom Smithard on 4 April 2016 in Culture
David Laws's account of the Coalition is told with attention to detail and mischievousness 

History is said to be written by the winners. Not recent political history though, as we find ourselves wading through a glut of books from former Liberal Democrat ministers who now find themselves with time on their hands.

Norman Baker, Vince Cable and Lynne Featherstone have all written their accounts of their time in government since losing their seats last May, with Nick Clegg’s to come later this year. But probably the most interesting of the lot is David Laws’s Coalition, its author combining almost unrestricted levels of access with his unparalleled attention to detail to produce a convincing account of a historic term in office.

I worked with David over these years, albeit as a mere foot soldier, assisting with projects on political reform and running the party’s polling programme – and saw up close how effective a politician he is. Laws has powerful political antennae attached to a first-class mind. He has a grounded sense of what is right and what is achievable and knows both where to compromise and when to stick to his guns. He also has a mischievous side to him – and loves a gossip.

All this comes out strikingly in his book, which is packed full of indiscrete anecdotes, including a fascinating one about Clegg and former Bank of England governor Mervyn King holding a summit on quantitative easing while in their underpants.

Disappointingly, there is limited muck-raking on the Tories, though it’s interesting to read that David Cameron wanted an amnesty on illegal immigrants until being reminded what a vote losing policy it was. There’s also a nice line about Cameron laughing approvingly at Lord Oakeshott’s barb that George Osborne was a “work experience chancellor”.

Laws opens his memoirs with a quote from Machiavelli’s The Prince but while both may be backroom fixers, David is a more principled and honest actor than his sixteenth century hero. Perhaps it explains his admiration for the more cunning Tory politicians, with praise for Michael Gove, Oliver Letwin, Osborne and Ken Clarke shining through the book. For those with neither charm, competence nor quick humour there are the usual Lawsian insults I came to know and appreciate: ‘sub optimal’ and ‘second rate’ for unfavoured politicians and advisers; anything that doesn’t spark interest gets a dryly-delivered ‘yawn’.

Speaking of yawn, there’s a lot of economic to and fro detailed here over a series of budgets, autumn statements and spending reviews that may be of interest to anoraks and historians but not the common reader. There’s also a sense that some of Laws’s Mystic Meg moments – he apparently successfully predicted economic upturns, byelection vote shares, referendum results and post-2015 reshuffles – might be slightly exaggerated. It certainly begs the question as to why he was so blindsided by his own result.

Laws also fails to answer the question implicitly posed throughout as he reels off Liberal Democrat achievements in government – what could the party have done differently to avoid such a humiliating electoral rout in 2015? He is perhaps too modest to say what he, and I, and a few others believe: If Laws had not chosen to leave Cabinet in 2010 after 22 days, many of the poor decisions made soon after – on tuition fees, on the NHS, on the ‘bedroom tax’ – may not have been made and the story may have ended very differently.

Potentially, it would not now be being told by David Laws as he may well still be sitting round the Cabinet table. We’d lose this fascinating account of those five years in power – but a year into Conservative majority rule it’s a loss I suspect many in this country would happily take.

Tom Smithard is a freelance journalist. Coalition by David Laws is published by Biteback.

Photo: Nick Ansell / PA Wire / Press Association Images

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