Political historians will be raking over May’s coalition talks for many years to come to establish an ever deeper level of detail and nuance.
We already know a fair amount about the talks that took place between a Lib Dem team of negotiators and their counterparts from the Tory and Labour parties. Yet there are still various interpretations of how the discussions played out.
This morning I watched David Laws and Lord Adonis give their subtly different versions of events five months after they occurred.
The most striking admission from Laws, from the Lib Dem team, who said the talks with Labour were – at least in part – a device to ratchet up concessions from the Tories.
“Coalition with the Labour party was certainly something we were willing to consider and we would have been mad not to because it would have weakened our negotiating position in terms of delivering as many of our policies as possible,” he told a select committee.
There was much discussion – pursued by Tory backbencher Chris Chope – over whether Conservative MPs had been fooled when told that Labour had offered the Lib Dems the alternative vote without a referendum. It was news of this that bounced the Tory party into agreeing a deal.
Both men confirmed that Labour had never made such an offer; although Adonis did make the subtle admission that his party could have allowed a referendum after legislation was introduced but before it had been enacted.
Laws claimed not to know where the supposition had come from: “I don’t think they were misled but there was a certain amount of confusion during the period, because there were media reports….I think it will always be an issue in the smoke and heat of the battle.”
Where their accounts differered was the Laws claim that the Labour team was never serious about a coalition, arguing that they were not “united or serious with the possible exception of Andrew Adonis and Peter Mandelson”.
Laws said it was significant that Alistair Darling was never involved.
“I think Andrew Adonis had probably thought about the issues quite a lot and gone through the constitutional issues, but what was a particular problem in the Labour team was that they…didn’t have Alistair Darling there as chancellor and the Labour team seemed to suggest to us that they didn’t have any mandate to agree on economic tax and spend polic without the chancellor’s position. That made it really difficult to discuss half of what were the most important issues because there was no one in the room who was willing to take responsibility for that.”
The Adonis version was very different:
“That’s not correct,” he said. “The negotiation never got to that stage, they never got to the stage where we were discussing precise details. In total we had about three and a half hours (of talks)….we didn’t reach an advanced stage of negotiations.”
Adonis then argued that the Darling point was irrelevant given that Vince Cable – his counterpart – was not on the Lib Dem negotiating team. He added:
“Gordon Brown offered the leader of the Liberal Democrats to have a meeting that would have included the chancellor and the Liberal Democrat Lib Dem Treasury spokesman Vince Cable. Mr Clegg declined that invitation.”
The former transport secretary also claimed that the Lib Dems were even then – like the Tories – commited to eliminating the structural deficit during the course of a parliament; which would have been an obstacle to a deal. It’s a curious claim given that the Lib Dems had opposed this during the election campaign.
The Adonis conclusion: “It (the Tory-Lib coalition) was a straightforward political decision that was made by the Liberal Democrats.”
Curiously, although Laws and Adonis greeted each other warmly in the committee room, neither hung around to hear the other’s evidence – meaning that they could not argue directly against each other. Both have suggested they will write books about the talks, although Adonis is said to have dropped the idea.
Update: Am told Laws is signed up to Biteback Publishing. Meanwhile more on the committee meeting on the Guardian website by Allegra Stratton.