Possession, whether in the world of property or politics, is nine-tenths of the law. The truth of this maxim lay at the heart of the hardnosed tactical calculation by our Party leadership in the fraught few days following the General Election which resulted in the formation of a coalition one year ago today.
The negotiating team’s key goal was to get David Cameron through the door of 10 Downing Street as quickly as possible. Not quite at any cost, but the details of accommodation made with our erstwhile Liberal Democrats opponents could be sorted out in the weeks, months and years to come.
Consistent double-digit opinion poll leads through most of 2008 and 2009 (two years to the month before the May 2010 election the Conservative lead peaked at 26%) had persuaded most of our supporters that we were heading for a comfortable overall majority. Whilst every single opinion poll during the campaign proper pointed towards a hung parliament, our failure to secure a majority still came as a shock and disappointment to many Conservatives nationwide. Against arguably the weakest and least publicly sympathetic leader in the Labour Party’s history and in the teeth of the worst economic recession in sixty years (probably a somewhat double-edged ‘asset’, in truth) failure now to secure office would have led to Tory upheaval.
It also goes some way to explaining why the minority administration option was dismissed. The time window of opportunity for a second, and hopefully decisive, election might have proved very narrow; there must also have been the nagging doubt that 307 seats and 36% vote share might be as good as it gets especially as a future election was unlikely to be fought against such weak and discredited Labour opponents.
David Cameron’s ‘big, open and comprehensive’ offer to the Liberal Democrats on the morrow of the election was certainly a game-changing political masterstroke. It also contained a crucial element of self-preservation. But did the leadership end up giving away more than we needed to secure the trappings of office?
It was not surprising that Nick Clegg was readily amenable to fully blown coalition. After all the hype of ‘Cleggmania’ he had ended up being the first Liberal Democrat leader in five elections to oversee a net loss of seats. Failure to strike a deal that took his party into government would, almost certainly, have led to his removal from Party leadership within a matter of months.
However much the Liberal Democrats in the frenzied days following the election might try to present themselves as ‘kingmakers’ the stark fact was that there was no other realistic deal on the table. The electoral arithmetic made a Lab/Lib Dem coalition difficult to the point of impossibility, not least in view of the exhaustion that had beset many senior Labour figures after thirteen years in office. There was also the overriding public perception that the indeterminate election outcome had at least provided us with one certainty: Labour had lost. Clinging on to office in this way would have been untenable for Labour especially as the (unpopular) action over deficit reduction, rather than simply talk, was about to begin in earnest. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats risked damage to their credibility from even attempting such a deal given its inherent instability.
I suppose if Gordon Brown had stood on the steps of Downing Street on that Friday morning after the vote and announced that he would resign at once, to help facilitate a ‘progressive coalition’ between the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties in the interests of the nation, it might just have had legs. Naturally such selflessness would never have occurred to Mr Brown. Moreover, given the overwhelming importance of the TV leadership debates to the conduct of the entire General Election campaign, it would have been almost inconceivable to the British public for none of the three contestants to have emerged as Prime Minister once the sordid business of post-election manoeuvring had come to an end. Incidentally this is a consideration that is likely to rear its head in future if the TV debates enjoy such primacy in the election campaign.
Which brings us back to the key issue – was it necessary for the Conservative leadership last May to offer so much to a Liberal Democrat party whose bargaining position was so much weaker than assumed? I suppose there was some symmetry – in return for the showering of ministerial office on almost one-third of its elected MPs, the Conservatives got cover for the essential programme of deficit reduction. For whilst the Liberal Democrat leadership have tried to present their volte face over economic policy as a reaction to fast-changing global events (the ‘Greek crisis defence’), it was nothing of the sort. In truth the financial outlook for the UK had changed not one iota. It was only the politics that was different.