Book review: Coalition Diaries 2012-2015
David Laws had a rare vantage point on the Coalition government and provides a warts and all account.
David Laws was a senior Lib Dem policy adviser, MP and Coalition minister. To his own surprise he lost his Taunton seat to the Conservatives in 2015. Laws had worked in investment banking and in 2004 co-edited The Orange Book : Reclaiming Liberalism. A close friend and adviser to Nick Clegg he was part of the team that negotiated the Coalition agreement in 2005.
Appointed as Chief Secretary to the Treasury he was in office for seventeen days when he was forced to resign over the disclosures of Parliamentary expenses. After a period on the back benchers Laws returned to government in 2012 as Minister of State for Schools in the Department of Education and Minster of State in the Cabinet Office. He attended Cabinet because of his ministerial portfolio.
In early 2012 Laws started a diary and this forms the basis of his book Coalition Diaries. He had used these diaries in his 2016 book Coalition which gave a very good personal analysis of that government from a Lib Dem perspective.
He was encourage by his publisher Iain Dale to produce the volume of diaries. As Laws points out he recorded his daily diary at the end of the day or first thing the following morning and was dictated.
Laws had a rare vantage point at the centre of Coalition government as he attended the Quad, met regularly with Clegg and his policy advisers, served on important Cabinet Committees, frequently brokering deals between the Coalition parties.
These diaries read very well, although there are occasions when the reader is overwhelmed by the details of the education debates and the munitae of Lib Dem policy making. Laws writes that he decided to keep a diary both for his own reference and in order in time to be able to record in his words “the political history of what was arguably Britain’s first real coalition government”.
Laws recognises that diaries are often more raw and less objective than later written accounts. He is aware that in editing diaries there is a temptation to emphasise disagreements and controversies over areas of cooperation.
Laws was keen to make sure that Lib Dem policies and objectives were met and is proud of the achievements of the Coalition government.
The author comes across to the reader as an intelligent, hard working and rather detached politician who was seriously committed to achieve great changes in wider education policy to help the disadvantaged.
Reading the diaries you get a Laws views of the Coalition minister, warts and all. He describes Cameron as a very effective chairman but always on the lookout for the quick fix and with a temper that at times could be revealing. Osborne is the consummate political strategist who he rather admires for his cynicism and ruthlessness. For two years he works closely with Michael Gove and he concludes there is a “good” and a “bad” Michael Gove.
Laws worked long hours, getting into the office by 06.30 hours and in frequent contact with ministers and officials. He details his long hours ploughing through his red boxes and at times his frustrations with civil servants and their ability to procrastinate.
Laws has great admiration for Danny Alexander, his successor as Chief Secretary , and documents the ducking and weaving and frequently unhelpful behaviour of Vince Cable.
The two Tory ministers he admires and thinks of as friends are Oliver Letwin – he brilliantly describes the amazing and compulsive Letwin laugh and giggle – and the wonderfully indiscreet Ken Clarke.
Laws documents Clegg and his increasing concern about how Cameron tacks to the right over policy issues and the fumbled way he pledges to have the EU referendum.
The diaries cover some, but not all of Laws private life and constituency work. Over the last six months of government the Lib Dem hierarchy becomes increasingly concerned about the polling which shows that many Lib Dem MPs will lose their seats. But Laws was not expecting to lose Yeovil on the night.
These diaries are an excellent read and give a very good Lib Dem view of what was overall a successful Coalition. The Conservative views has not received as much personal memoir of interpretation, although Oliver Letwin’s recent Hearts and Minds does deal with some aspects in a very elegant and thoughtful way.
Coalition Diaries is published by Biteback. Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland and books editor for Total Politics.