DESPITE the closeness of the polls in 2009-2010 and the evident potential for a hung Parliament, most commentators were still shocked by the result. “How the hell did this happen?” exclaims one adviser to David Cameron in this first history of the coalition.
In It Together: The Inside Story Of The Coalition Government
Yet full-blown coalition was indeed a novelty in post-war British politics. As Matthew d’Ancona reveals, Cameron was well aware that he was likely to fall short of an absolute majority. Thus a secret memo by Nick Boles before the election set out the possibilities for coalition. When the moment came, Clegg and Cameron were able to work together surprisingly easily.
What quickly becomes clear is how poorly Clegg played his hand. He opted to be “co-pilot” as deputy PM, rather than have Lib Dems run whole departments. He apparently made little effort to capture the key fiefdom, the Treasury: its Whitehall stranglehold is evident, especially in the accounts of George Osborne’s bruising tussles with a distinctly naïve Iain Duncan Smith.
D’Ancona tells us of the “relentless” texting between Cameron and Clegg in the early days, but without a real power base it did Clegg little good. Thus the Lib Dems are virtually absent from whole sections here on, for example, home affairs and education. More immediately damaging was their U-turn in 2010 over university tuition fees, a complete capitulation to the Tories.
Worse was to come with the Lib Dems’ defeat in the May 2011 referendum on electoral reform: Clegg seems genuinely shocked at the Tories’ steel, admitting lamely that “I wasn’t really leading”. Only in July 2012, with the Tories’ defeat of Lords reform, did Clegg put his foot down and exact a price, the abandonment of key boundary changes.
Yet it is also striking how little Cameron has really exploited Lib Dem weakness. This is partly because, as his policy brain Steve Hilton realised by 2011, the PM is reactive rather than radical. He dithered over Andrew Lansley’s disastrous health bill as well as kicking the Beecroft report on employment reform into the long grass. He was instead “constantly” engaged with the challenge of playing down his own privileged background, a source of friction even within the Tories.
By 2012 it was looking shaky: Osborne torpedoed the Tories’ poll ratings with his “omnishambles” Budget, while Ukip became an unignorable force. And D’Ancona is kinder to the Tories about their debacle in Eastleigh in February this year than some of their own strategists.
Yet the Coalition remains in place and has achieved what seemed politically impossible in early 2010: its greatest achievement, concludes d’Ancona, has been to hold together at all. And this absorbing book explains why;