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Archives for July 2010

A leap in the dark

Nick Robinson | 23:04 UK time, Wednesday, 28 July 2010

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The thing about working in news is that you almost never have the time or, frankly, the inclination to review what you said and judge whether it has stood the test of time.

For the past few weeks, however, I've done just that - re-living the five days that led to the creation of Britain's first coalition government in 65 years.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg outside the door of 10 Downing StreetHappily I have not come across any gross inaccuracies but am struck by my failure - shared by many - to join the dots. In particular, I wish I'd listened more to two Liberal Democrats who told me during the election that they could see David Cameron doing a post-election deal.

Neil Sherlock, an adviser to this and many previous Lib Dem leaders, rang to remind me of what the Tory leader had said in a Radio 4 documentary I had made about Disraeli. Cameron had praised Dizzy for outmanoeuvring Gladstone on the issue of political reform and quoted a historian who said that the former Tory PM had "taken a leap in the dark and then leapt again". Neil's view was that anyone who could appreciate Disraeli's bold risk-taking was capable of replicating it.

Chris Huhne told me and his party that Cameron was the only Napoleonic leader left in Europe. In other words, whatever the Tory leader said became Tory policy.

Both were proved right.

There were a lot of reasons why Cameron was in the driving seat after polling day - his party had the most votes and seats; the Lib Dems had promised to respect this "mandate" in negotiations (they didn't have to, since in other parts of the world it's not uncommon for the second and third parties to form a government); Labour had had 13 years in office and three terms; and, of course, Gordon Brown was unpopular.

However, the personalities of the two leaders were vital to what happened in those five days. David Cameron told me for a programme on the making of the coalition, which is broadcast tonight, that he woke up on Friday morning after a few hours of sleep and decided that a coalition was right for Britain. The truth is, I believe, a little more complex. Cameron sensed that he was unlikely to secure a majority, feared the consequences for him and his modernising project of failing and had talked with his closest allies about a coalition well before polling day.

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In stark contrast, Gordon Brown had not prepared a policy offer for the Lib Dems, nor got the backing of his Cabinet, nor developed a relationship with Nick Clegg. This, despite the fact that he must have known that a Lib/Lab deal was likely to be his best hope of political survival. As so often with Brown this was not a failure to see ahead. He had, after all, proposed radical political reform, but he'd done it so late in his time in Downing Street that it wasn't taken seriously.

Gordon BrownInstead of building a relationship with the man with whom he might have to share power, Gordon Brown relied instead on his contacts with former Lib Dem leaders - Charles Kennedy, Paddy Ashdown and Menzies Campbell - and Vince Cable. Cable, who has known and liked Brown for three decades, was a regular pre-election visitor to Number 10. There were even hints of a ministerial job for him. Brown ignored the advice of Cable and all his Lib Dem friends to find a way to get on with Clegg. When I put it to Peter Mandelson that Clegg found Brown impossible, the Prince of Darkness replied with a wry grin that "No... he'd found him Gordon-ish".

There was another factor beyond the personal - the economic context on that post-election weekend. The crisis talks over how to prevent the Greek debt crisis spreading contagion throughout the eurozone were little reported in Britain, but officials in the Treasury and the Bank of England were focused on little else. Their fear was what one official describes as a "perfect storm" if the EU failed to agree a bail-out plan and Britain failed to produce a stable government by the time the markets opened on the Monday morning after the election.

When negotiators from the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats came to the Cabinet Office for their first meeting, the Cabinet Secretary left them in no doubt what was expected of them. "My advice to them," Sir Gus O'Donnell tells the programme, "[was] that pace was important but that also the more comprehensive the agreement the better." If things had gone wrong, he says, "the markets would really have made us pay a price on the Monday morning by selling our debt and that would have been a real problem for the country."

Labour figures insist that all the arguments used by the Lib Dems - the Parliamentary arithmetic, the market warnings, the prime minister being "Gordon-ish" - are mere alibis to cover the fact that they made a choice to get into bed with the Conservative rather than Labour.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg sitting in the Cabinet roomWhat is striking reviewing those five days is how each of those reasons or alibis - take your pick - could be seen in advance. It was always likely that the Tories would be the largest party after the election. It was always evident that the Lib Dems were more hawkish on the deficit than Labour: Nick Clegg was the first to talk of "savage cuts"; Vince Cable was the first to spell out how they might be made; Chris Huhne used to work for a credit rating agency; David Laws is a former merchant banker. And it always evident that Nick Clegg found Gordon Brown impossible to deal with.

If only I'd listened to more to those two Lib Dems, I would also have predicted David Cameron's boldness - Labour's Andrew Adonis calls it his "strategic brilliance" - and the Tory leader's capacity to get pretty much anything past his party.

Note to self: Must try harder...

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Update, 10:54, 29 July: Those who think I've been too hard on Gordon Brown will be interested in Anthony Seldon's account in today's Independent of how he played those five days in May.

He reports what Brown would have said if he'd agreed to be interviewed for tonight's documentary - namely that he was always willing to stand aside to enable a coalition with the Lib Dems after a referendum on full scale political reform - PR and an elected Lords - had been held; that he signalled a willingness to talk about his future in his first phone call with Clegg and that he was explicit about it in their first meeting.

I've no doubt that Brown was sincere in his efforts to build a coalition and that he was not helped by colleagues who thought Labour should accept defeat - ranging from Alistair Darling to Tony Blair.

The problem was that it was too late. The Lib Dems were deeply suspicious of Brown - blaming him for resisting a deal between Blair and Ashdown in the 90s, for trying to recruit Paddy Ashdown to the Cabinet in 2007 without offering the Lib Dems anything in return and for only backing AV in the dying weeks of 13 years of New Labour rule. His relationship with Clegg was poor. The Labour Party had moved on.

Once again Brown saw what needed to be done but simply could not do it.

Five Days that Changed Britain is on BBC Two tonight at 2100 BST.

Act in haste, repent at leisure

Nick Robinson | 16:44 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010

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By abandoning plans to give anonymity to men accused of rape the government has dropped the first policy contained in the coalition agreement.

It is easy to forget quite how quickly that document was drawn up. Version One was produced in less than five days immediately after the election when the Tory and Lib Dem negotiators had had very little sleep.

Since giving anonymity was not in either party manifesto many have puzzled where this controversial idea came from. It stemmed from an old Lib Dem conference motion which Oliver Letwin is blamed/credited for noticing.

The Tories have been keen to downplay how prepared they were for hung Parliament negotiations. However, on the day after the polls closed, Letwin appeared to know more about Lib Dem policy than any of Nick Clegg's negotiators. The Tories arrived at talks with a string of policy concessions to woo their potential coalition partners.

You will, of course, learn more about this - yes, you saw the shameless plug coming - in my documentary Five Days that Changed Britain which you can see this Thursday on BBC2 at 21:00.

The cuts are in the post

Nick Robinson | 19:03 UK time, Thursday, 15 July 2010

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The Treasury has yet to receive a single submission from any government department about how they propose to cut their budgets. The deadline is tomorrow.

HM TreasuryEvery department is expected to have come up with their initial ideas of how to cut their budget by 25% and, just to make life more interesting, 40% too.

One minister tells me that "It's been horrible but it's what we were elected to do". Another joked - rather macabrely - that they'd lined up a little girl grasping a teddy bear to front up their campaign to avoid the axe.

The Treasury warn that this is the time when departments parade "bleeding stumps" - leaking stories about which worthy individual, cause or community will suffer if they are made to deliver painful cuts.

The word at the Department for Energy and Climate is that they have "radioactive bleeding stumps" - a reference to the huge cost of decommissioning nuclear power stations which is a large part of their budget.

Next week the PEX Committee - that's Whitehall's name for the new Public Expenditure Committee chaired by the chancellor - will meet to examine who is on track and who has more work to do.

Summer - normally a quiet time for ministers and their officials - may be rather more lively than usual.

Sir Humphrey praises politicians shock

Nick Robinson | 10:56 UK time, Wednesday, 14 July 2010

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Ever since Sir Humphrey graced our screens in Yes Minister the impression has been forged in the nation's minds that senior civil servants look down their Oxbridge-educated noses at the childish manoeuvring of their intellectually inferior political masters.

Sir Gus O'DonnellAll the more striking then that Britain's top civil servant - who's called Sir Gus not Sir Humphrey - has revealed that he and his officials underestimated the capacity of our political leaders to do a deal in the national interest.

In a lecture last night, Sir Gus O'Donnell reported that his team had role-played the political negotiations in preparation for a hung Parliament:

"The good news was that we had practised handling a result that was very close to the real one. The bad news was that, under our scenario, no stable government had emerged".

Sir Gus says that their discussions broke down, unlike the ones which actually took place during those Five Days Which Changed Britain*, He goes on to ask an important question :

"So why, in the event, did the politicians do so much better? I believe it was because, in our role-played negotiations, there was one vital ingredient which was not possible to simulate - and on which, in fact, the founding and sustaining of a coalition rests. That ingredient is 'trust'.
 
"The coalition came together not just because of an alignment of party interest, but because politicians - contrary to the expectations of many - were able to develop the necessary level of trust in each other."

What mattered, he says, was the establishment of a process that would build mutual trust between the parties and politicians involved and hence reinforce a co-operative approach to policy development. It is trust, he concluded, which will be the key to whether the coalition thrives and, by implication, survives.

Lest you think that Britain's top official has got carried away by the excitement of the "new politics" let me relate a relevant tale from this week.

The proposals for a re-organisation of the NHS included a fundamental and little-noticed change from those contained in either the Conservative manifesto or the coalition agreement. The government now plan to give councils a major new strategic health role, examining the purchasing decisions of GPs and fitting them together with their plans for public health and social care. For the Lib Dems, this represents an important injection of democracy into the new health market. For the Tories, it allows them to propose the abolition of primary care trusts altogether instead of, as originally discussed, having to hold elections to them.

This was the result of the first negotiated departure from the coalition agreement. First the Tory Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, and his Lib Dem deputy, Paul Burstow had to agree. Then they had to persuade the Tory Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles. Then the idea had to be taken to the cabinet home affairs committee chaired by the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. Finally, it had to be approved by the coalition committee which considers any major departures from the original agreement.

This is what today's Sir Humphrey sees as the restoration of cabinet government, which is one reason he and some other senior officials are going round praising politicians and not patronising them (in public, at least).

* Five Days Which Changed Britain just happens to be the title of a one-hour documentary I'm making which will air on BBC2 at 2100 on Wednesday 28 July. Please brace yourself for endless plugs from now on. After all, if Alastair Campbell can go on and on about beating me on Top Gear, why shouldn't I go on and on? (Though he also has other more interesting things to say in his Telegraph column today about the reliability of political memoirs.)

Are you sitting comfortably?

Nick Robinson | 10:09 UK time, Monday, 12 July 2010

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Peter Mandelson has now begun to reveal part of the fascinating story of the behind the scenes dealing which led to the formation of Britain's first post-war full coalition government.

I am hard at work on a documentary which aims to tell the whole story, as seen by the key players involved. Tony Blair's switch from proponent to opponent of a progressive realignment is just one example of how the story of five days in May is, in reality, the story of two decades of British politics.

The hour-long programme will air on BBC2 later this month. In the meantime, please forgive the sporadic blogging.

Schools row: Tip of a large political iceberg

Nick Robinson | 08:57 UK time, Friday, 9 July 2010

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The botched list of schools that won't now be re-built is just the tip of a very large political iceberg.

Labour's Ed Balls can scarcely conceal his glee that Michael Gove, his successor as education secretary, has crashed the ship of state into it.

Michael GoveThe row began as an argument about an administrative error, the anguish it caused to communities whose hopes of a new school were first raised and then dashed, and the need for the minister to apologise. However, the row did not subside when Gove - a man known for his old world courtesy - apologised not once but repeatedly. In fact it grew.

The real argument - the iceberg - is about cuts - how big they should be and where they should fall - and about educational philosophy, whether new buildings matter as much as better teaching.

Michael Gove claims that Building Schools for the Future - the scheme beloved of Ed Balls - was guilty of "massive overspends... and needless bureaucracy". He points out that Labour wwas committed to an unspecified cut of 50% in capital spending and insists that new schools will still be built and old ones repaired.

Balls replies that the government is cutting spending on local schools to fund an ideologically driven policy of creating "free schools".

Both in public and in private, Gove insists that the errors in his list are his responsibility and his alone. Others mutter, though, that the new minister has been stitched up by officials who may have forgotten that they no longer work for Balls.

The row has added piquancy since Balls is running to be Labour's next leader and Gove is one of David Cameron's closest allies.

Balls will hope that he has holed the coalition below the water line. Gove must prove that having carelessly struck the iceberg he can now get back to port; patch up the hole and set sail again.

'Scrutiny by screech'

Nick Robinson | 10:08 UK time, Wednesday, 7 July 2010

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That is how the Speaker described PMQs yesterday in a speech proposing radical change to the weekly joust between the prime minister and possible future PM.

It will be interesting to see how today matches that description and how all sides respond to John Bercow's vivid description:

"We reached the point where almost nothing was deemed beyond the personal responsibility of the Prime Minister of the day, where the party leaders were responsible for a third of all the questions asked (and often more like 50 to 60% of the total time consumed) all set against a background of noise which makes the vuvuzela trumpets of the South African World Cup appear but distant whispers by comparison. If it is scrutiny at all, then it is scrutiny by screech which is a very strange concept to my mind."

Mayday Mayday: Electoral reform referendum

Nick Robinson | 09:48 UK time, Friday, 2 July 2010

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Put 5 May 2011 in your diary.

David Cameron and Nick CleggIt may make or break Britain's first post-war coalition.

It's the date on which Nick Clegg has persuaded David Cameron to stage a referendum on changing the voting system.

Mr Cameron tried but failed to persuade his deputy that an early vote was an early risk for the coalition. He asked Mr Clegg to focus on the risk of the referendum being lost on the same day as the government is punished at the polls. Wouldn't many Lib Dems conclude, he asked, that there was no point remaining in the coalition?

Mr Clegg insisted that he needed an early win for the Liberal Democrats in the coalition - particularly after they, and not the Tories, have been blamed for the VAT-hiking Budget. He argued that holding the referendum on the same day as elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh assembly, and local councils in England will increase interest and turnout.

Next Tuesday, the cabinet will be asked to back Mr Cameron's decision to give in to Mr Clegg's demand.

There is, though, another vital vote to be won before 5 May. Getting the legislation through Parliament will be the first big test for the coalition whips.

Many Tory MPs believe that they were misled into backing a referendum on the alternative vote in the frantic coalition-building days which followed the general election. David Cameron told his party that Labour had promised Nick Clegg electoral reform without a referendum. Mr Clegg has since said that that is not true. This will give some the excuse they are looking for to rebel.

In order to woo his party, the Tory leader is linking the referendum to the Conservative manifesto promise to equalise the size of constituencies - which should give the Tories a few more seats.

However, this may give Labour an excuse to vote against the legislation if it wants to cause the coalition trouble.

How, you may wonder, could Labour oppose a referendum on AV when it was the first to propose it, and promised it in the Labour manifesto? The answer's simple. It's the opposition's job to oppose.

Labour's new leader will be elected before the big Commons votes on voting reform.
He or she may recall the example of John Smith. The arch pro-European made John Major's life hell when he refused to help him take on his rebels on the Maastricht Treaty.

"Mayday Mayday": trouble looms for the coalition.

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