First published in Progress magazine
‘They’re all useless bastards’, was an agreed spoiled vote in David Laws’ Yeovil constituency in 2010. Fast forward five years and it was the public’s reaction to the Liberal Democrats after half a decade of power.
Having read Laws’ first book, 22 days in May, I was looking forward to an equally stimulating read in Coalition. But alas. His latest BiteBack publication gallantly makes the case that it was right for the Liberal Democrats to join the government in May 2010; after all, if the ‘Orange Bookers’ do not, who else will?
The author generously reminds his readers that in a few short days in the Treasury he was key to two decisions that would prove catastrophic to the economy recovery: £6bn in-year cuts and the rise in VAT. He also chronicles how the Liberal Democrats gave the Tories the key to their outright majority in 2015 – the ‘triple lock’ on pensions and with it an electoral lock on older voters.
Credit where it is due, the man himself is central to delivering the two overriding yellow achievements of the coalition: increased tax allowance thresholds and the creation of the pupil premium alongside a protected schools budget. Their repetition ad nauseam becomes a little tiresome as the book progresses. However, any fair observer should admit that Nick Clegg and his team did smooth some of the rough edges of David Cameron and George Osborne’s agenda over those five years – the recent inheritance tax cut, savage welfare cuts and the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union almost make Laws’ point more eloquently.
He recognises early on the ‘swelling electoral tsunami’ about to hit the party. Tuition fees is wrongly, in my humble opinion, viewed as a comms, not a policy, failure but Laws is right to observe that ‘had there not been the U-turn on tuition fees, many of the voters who cited this as a reason for no longer voting Liberal Democrat would still have found some other “betrayal” to … justify withdrawing their support.’
Continued reading leads me to three further thoughts.
First, Labour seemed hardly relevant through this period. Its attacks – largely on the motives of the coalition parties – had little impact because they did not revolve around the incompetence which was often on display. With Ed Miliband going so heavily on the government being ‘out of touch’, the failure of Labour to capitalise on Conservative member of parliament Nadine Dorries’ comments about ‘two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk’ is damning.
Second, how hellbent the Tories were on reducing the very top £150,000 per annum rate of tax back to 40 per cent. Clegg rescued the 45p rate, but watch out for its total abolition.
Third, Laws calls the coalition a ‘roaring success’, and it strikes me that his case in this book is not just for that coalition, but for coalitions more widely. Liberal Democrats have not given up on voting reform in general and a proportional system in particular. Both are likely to deliver more hung parliaments. A more positive view of this coalition might, in Laws’ view at least, be key to the general idea of coalitions being less alarming the next time voting reform is before the electorate.
Richard Angell is director of Progress
Coalition: The Inside Story of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government
BiteBack Publishing | 624pp | £25