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Was the coalition built on a lie?

Michael Crick | 12:43 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010

Ahead of tonight's Newsnight special on the coalition (at 2230 on BBC Two) it is worth asking a big question:

Were Conservative MPs railroaded into accepting the coalition on the basis of a lie, or at best an unfortunate misunderstanding?

That's the allegation which has been swirling round among Tories at Westminster for several weeks now.

One Conservative MP - far from a right-winger - reckons David Cameron lied to the shadow Cabinet and his backbench MPs at least four times in the hours leading up to the coalition agreement with the Lib Dems on 11 May.

The big issue is whether the Conservatives needed to offer Nick Clegg a referendum on the AV voting system.

Mystery especially surrounds what happened on the afternoon of Monday 10 May.

I recall William Hague emerging from St. Stephen's entrance of the Commons with the surprising news that the Tories would now offer the Lib Dems a referendum on AV.

I suggested to Hague that the Conservatives were now merely matching Labour, who had been promising a referendum on AV since Gordon Brown's speech at the 2009 Labour conference, and included it in their 2010 manifesto.

Oh no, Hague told me, he understood that Labour was now offering the Lib Dems AV WITHOUT a referendum.

I must admit Hague's comment disconcerted me. I failed to follow it up, simply because I feared I was uninformed and that Labour had made this promise during the course of the day and I hadn't noticed.

And it's now clear from several government Tory sources that David Cameron told both his Shadow Cabinet that afternoon, and the meeting of all Conservative MPs that evening, the same thing. His argument was that they had to do something to catch up with Labour's offer to the Lib Dems of AV without a referendum.

But it wasn't true. There's no evidence that Labour ever offered the Lib Dems AV without a referendum. Indeed it's hard to see how the Labour leadership ever could have got Labour MPs to go along with such an idea.

Among those Conservative MPs who recall being told by the party leadership that Labour was offering AV without a referendum was Julian Lewis.

And during the Commons debate on the Queen's Speech, on 7 June, he raised the matter with the Shadow Justice Secretary Jack Straw:

Dr Julian Lewis: Will the right hon. Gentleman [Jack Straw] confirm that in the course of the competitive negotiations with the Liberal Democrats as to which side was going to form a Government, his party offered the Liberal Democrats a deal whereby AV would be rammed through this House without a referendum?

Mr Jack Straw: The answer is no. I would also say to the hon. Gentleman that a very significant proportion of Labour Members, including myself, would never have accepted such a proposition had it been put forward - let us be absolutely clear about that.

(Hansard 7 June 2010, cols 29-30)

Astonished to get that response, Julian Lewis then pursued the issue with Nick Clegg later in the same debate:

Dr Lewis: ..... He will have heard the answer that the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) gave when I asked him whether it had been the case that the outgoing Labour Prime Minister had offered, during the coalition negotiations, to ram through the alternative vote without a referendum. I am not giving away any trade secrets when I say that Conservative MPs were told that that was the case. The Deputy Prime Minister is in a position to know. Were the Liberal Democrats offered by the Labour Party the alternative vote without a referendum? Can he set the matter to rest?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The answer is no. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) was right. That was not offered by the Labour Party in
those discussions. The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) is right - I should know whether it was offered or not.

(Hansard 7 June 2010, col 44)

So where did the story about Labour offering the Lib Dems AV without a referendum come from?

There are several possibilities.

In their talks with the Tories did the Lib Dems over-egg, exaggerate, or even lie about what Labour had offered them?

That's certainly the view of at least one Conservative minister who is very hostile to the referendum.

Or did the Conservatives simply misunderstand what the Lib Dems said they were being offered by Labour?

Alternatively, did David Cameron and his senior colleagues simply invent Labour's offer in order to cajole Tory backbenchers into accepting they should offer Lib Dems the AV referendum?

There's one other intriguing possibility - which some Labour people suspect may have happened - that in a desperate moment Gordon Brown privately offered Lib Dems AV without an referendum, but failed to tell Jack Straw or any of his other colleagues or the Labour negotiators about his offer. In any case, Nick Clegg denied that in the Commons.

Meanwhile another of David Cameron's claims also aggrieves many Conservative MPs as they become increasingly concerned about the coalition.

In his meeting with Tory MPs on the Monday evening, David Cameron said the party had no option but to go into coalition with the Lib Dems, and that a minority government wouldn't be viable.

And yet only two days later, in the famous press conference in Downing Street garden (misnamed the Rose Garden press conference), Cameron claimed he could indeed have gone it alone, but much preferred a firm coalition with the Lib Dems.

"We could have had a minority government backed by a Confidence and Supply arrangement but thought this is so uninspiring, it might last for a month, six months or a year but it won't do what we want to achieve..."

As the arguments about AV and the coalition get increasingly heated over coming months, the mysteries of who said what during those few fascinating days may be worth a lot more examination.

Watch a special edition of Newsnight about the coalition government on Monday 26 July 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two.


  • Comment number 1.

    Accusing the Lib Dems of lying is a very serious allegation Michael. Do you have any quotes from people who aren't Tories? Why do you accuse the Lib Dems of lying when the only evidence is that senior Tory people mislead their own backbenchers, knowingly or otherwise?

    What I can say is that, speaking as someone who spoke to several Lib Dem MPs in the run up to the deal with the Tories, from their point of view Labour were offering them nothing at all. They weren't even offering a firm commitment to pull a three line whip on their existing manifesto commitment for a referendum on AV. If there had been any suggestion of Labour making some kind of grandiose offer of AV without a referendum, it was almost certainly an empty one on the basis that they would not have been able to deliver. That would have been clear to any Tory backbencher listening to the Today programme on the Tuesday morning, with senior Labour people queuing up to denounce any deal with the Lib Dems and specifically electoral reform.

    If there HAD been an indication that Labour were offering serious concessions during the coalition talks, the Labour talks would almost certainly have lasted longer than they did.

    But it is ultimately irrelevant what Labour had been offering. They didn't have the numbers to push anything through. What's more, there is no way Clegg could have got the Lib Dems on board without an AV referendum at the very least. The Tory backbenchers knew both of these facts and went along with the talks on that basis. It is frankly pathetic for them to claim they were lied to now on something that was pretty immaterial.

  • Comment number 2.

    Another option could be that Labour spread this rumour in order to excuse their uncooperative behaviour during the negotiations?

  • Comment number 3.

    'uncooperative behaviour'?? Labour did not have the seats, the Tories had more but no overall I would have risked it...anything to keep out the party from Attilla the Hun...

  • Comment number 4.

    Is this not significant? Pages 545 & 546 of Mandelson's memoirs.

    A conversation between Mandelson and Danny Alexander whereby the latter asks about the 'possibility of our implementing the alternative vote system without holding the referendum .... as a first step towards a fully proportional system'.

  • Comment number 5.

    So... this report is more an opinion piece based on gossip and rumour, filtered to taste.

    And speaking of the new BBC editorial guidelines there is that other rather conveniently factually iffy basis of 'news', the leak.

    After the CRU emails I learned of 'watertight oversight', which on balance sounds a pretty good standard to adhere to. If something is obtained by illegal means (hack, snoop or whistleblow) then no way can it be touched for fear of taint. At least, not until muuuuuuuch later.

    However, only today I find this can be trumped, in another aquatic sense, by 'principled leaking'. And hence we get another standard, or a double one, if you will.

    Trouble is, today's Iraq's Wikileaks seems to have the potential to arouse even more passions, and indeed result in greater adverse consequences than some scientists being outed as childish and maybe a bit sloppy.

    Thing is, as I these days so often do, I have to wonder why one set of events is deemed worthy of suppression by the BBC and its news teams until interpreted 'properly', and the other needs rushing out raw as the narrative needs instant enhancing. In fact, with a bit of source-identity free quoting as garnish.


    'So where did the story... come from?

    Who knows, yet? But if one thing can be relied upon, if it is a matter of stirring in some quarters to the discomfort of others, there's probably a few good places for it to originate and then be placed to get a satisfactory, nationally broadcast, result. Depending on your tribal allegiance.

    'Mystery especially surrounds what happened'

    Doesn't seem to have impeded a darn good stir, though, eh?

    IMHO. But then, I am not a totally objective national broadcast reporter.

  • Comment number 6.


    The number of Conservative seats won, though not an outright majority, made this coalition possible. The Conservatives deployed the following sentences in their election literature:


    I have found no one who can tell me how to read these as true.
    I have sent a facsimile of the offending flyer to the redoubtable Michael Crick, in the hope he will tweak a few sensitive noses. I will keep you informed.

  • Comment number 7.

    Gossip, gossip, gossip!

  • Comment number 8.

    Living in a safe Tory seat with zero chance for Labour, I hold my nose and vote LibDem, as do the rest of my family.

    WE ARE ALL AGREED THAT WE WILL NEVER, EVER VOTE LIBDEM AGAIN NO MATTER WHAT THEY SAY OR DO - I am pretty sure that most people around here who voted tactically feel the same.

    Given the lack of any chance of Labour building support in the rural westcountry, we intend to try and work with the Green Party to build a base on the local council and to prise anti-Tory LibDems away to vote Green. Hopefully the Tory right will also split to UKIP, as the ConDems tone down the Tory Right's Euroscpticism, so opening up vulnerability to a centre-left/green protest coalition.

    We will also campaign against the AV referendum - this would make Clegg the kingmaker for evermore - getting full PR would allow a broader coalition to come to power, whilst AV would simply cement the centre-right into power for the forseeable future. Labour needs to build a broad consensus about this with the nationalists and the Greens on this.

    If the ConDem Coalition was built on the lie that Micael Crick appears to have uncovered, the patsies were not only the Tory right, but also the LibDem left and their party in the country whose instincts are not to the right are not going to be very happy about this either.

    At the moment the coalition is floating in Darling's stimulus lifeboat - when the cuts really bite in the autumn and the private sector doesn't deliver the 2.7M new jobs, the 300 Bn of new investment and incrase exports by a third whilst unemploment heads for 5m, LibDem MPs will see the writing on the wall and feel the ire of their constituents and party members.

  • Comment number 9.

    Was the last Labour government based on a lie ?

  • Comment number 10.

    Speaking of liars. Blair, Brown, Mandelson. The Labour list is so endless, I don't have time to post it !



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