Saturday, 25 April 2015
"I'm worried about Nick. He's in a bad place."
I tend to write up my blog posts late these days, what with having become a father for the first time in February, but I just had to get this one out before the General Election and what looks like being a much more tortuous set of coalition negotiations over what could be a lot more than six days.
Also, cards on the table time: I'm on the left of the party, and some way to the left of all of the party's Cabinet ministers, with the possible exception of Vince Cable, but I've always voted Lib Dem until now. And the only reason I won't be voting Lib Dem on 7th May because I have now moved to a Tory/Labour marginal where a Lib Dem vote is fairly pointless under First Past the Post (why oh why is there not a site where I can swap my vote with a Labour supporter in a threatened Lib Dem seat?). I may not be a supporter of Nick Clegg (see below) or Orange Bookers generally, but I don't demonise him as many Labour tribalists do, but he hasn't been good leader since 2010 for various reasons, although he does have genuine achievements to his name and can, on the whole, be proud of his career. This one-off drama, with Clegg taking centre stage, is rather good at showing both his vices and his virtues.
Coalition is as good as this sort of thing tends to be, although you can never get a huge amount of dramatic depth out of a fairly straight reconstruction of recent political events. Obviously the standout cast member is Mark Gatiss who, as every review and preview has said, steals the show as a weary yet still dangerous Peter Mandelson, but all the portrayals ring true.
We begin not with the night of the election but with the leaders' debates, and those heady days of Cleggmania when everything seemed possible. This gives context for the slight deflation felt by many Lib Dems on election night, but the absurdity of election night is best portrayed by David Cameron receiving a call of misunderstanding congratulations from the Governor of California. Hasta la vista, baby. We also establish the relationship between Clegg and Donald Sumpter's elder statesman Paddy Ashdown, both a more left-wing and more substantial figure than Clegg, first shown consoling his protege on the mildly disappointing results, showing him to have rather more steel to him; it's not hard to see that the authorial voice sides with Ashdown rather than Clegg. So do I.
The morning after the night before sees Cameron make his big offer of coalition and Ashdown's prescient remark that "They'd string us up." The personal relationships are fascinating here; Camerpn subtly shows his dominance by insisting on immediate negotiations without sleep, and Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell puts pressure on both parties for a quick deal. Soon there are parallel negotiations going on with Labour, and the contrasts between Clegg's two suitors are fascinating; the Tories are hungry and devious, while Labour are half-hearted (sans Mandelson, a bit), unprepared and saddled by the fact that they simply haven't got the parliamentary arithmetic. Clegg's relationship with Gordon Brown is awkward, while Cameron runs rings round him; a Con-Lib coalition was inevitable, but a Blair clone like Clegg does not a good negotiator make and the script implies, not unfairly, that he was at least partly motivated by the prospect of power. He could have held out for a better deal, Brown leaving Number 10 prematurely notwithstanding. And, although a coalition of course makes it understandable that both sides have to compromise on their respective manifestos, that tuition fees pledge was different. It should have been inviolable.
Clegg's ultimatum to Brown- that he has to leave as PM for a coalition to happen- is both awkward and terrible, and Clegg is right to feel guilt. Brown deserved better, and Clegg cannot feel aggrieved if Labour were to make a similar demand in a week's time. Still, I have no doubt that all sides will be much better prepared.
There's a nice cameo from Michael Crichton as an ancient Tory backbencher who remembers 1974, reminding us that Cameron too faces pressures, but the dramatic focus remains on a harried Clegg and a dignified Brown. We're reminded of how haphazard the final hours were, with Cameron becoming big PM, in the dark, before negotiations are complete. There will not, I suspect, be such chaos next time.
We end with the rose garden, and actual footage, bizarre in retrospect. Looking back the whole understanding of how coalitions were supposed to work looks extremely naive. I'm sure all parties are now much, much wiser.