A leap in the dark
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.
Happily 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.
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.
Instead 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.
What 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...
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.