A missed opportunity?

Author:Adonis, Andrew
Position:5 Days in May

That so few people predicted the possibility of the current coalition tells us something about the recent history of the two parties involved. By the 2000s, the Liberal Democrats were seen as being to the left of Labour on many issues. As leader of the party during the 1990s, Paddy Ashdown had negotiated behind the scenes on 'The Project' - a plan to create a Lib-Lab coalition that would re-forge British politics and ensure that progressives dominated the twenty-first century in the way that the Conservative Party had the twentieth. His successor, Charles Kennedy, moved the party further left, phrasing his arguments in terms of social justice, making the case for specific tax increases, attacking Labour over its lack of respect for civil liberties, and opposing the war in Iraq.

During the same period, the Conservatives seemed stuck in a rut (Bale, 2011). They continued on the path that Thatcher started on, long after it ceased to be a winning electoral strategy, losing general elections heavily in 1997, 2001 and 2005. The four leaders elected after Thatcher (John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard) continued her legacy, with only moderate revisions. The party remained free-market, moderately Eurosceptic and critical of many aspects of welfare provision and the public services. Throughout the New Labour years, the party rejected electorally viable candidates from the centre (notably Ken Clarke) or those who appeared to have moved that way (Michael Portillo - after something of a Damascene conversion after 1997) in favour of more of the same, and with the same broad electoral result.

This history made a deal between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories appear unlikely in the run-up to the 2010 election. Andrew Adonis' gripping page-turner tells us more than any other source about the creation of the Coalition. It is by far the best of the insider accounts of the short period after the inconclusive election of May 2010 when, according to Adonis, 'everything looked possible'. The electoral mathematics made a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats easier than a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. However, Adonis argues convincingly that a progressive alternative was possible between the Liberal Democrats and Labour, with the agreement of the smaller parties - and that the Liberal Democrat leadership accepted that this could be the case at the time. The book, a rapid tale of the...

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