I read this quite some months after it came out. Not available as an ebook chiz. update: you can get it on Kindle I am told But I do take an interest in the career and activities of my successor as MP for Reading East, who will represent that constituency for as long as he wants to unless there is an outbreak of madness in the Reading East Conservative Association, which, although it has happened in the past, does not look at all likely with current personnel.
Wilson's writing seemed at first pedestrian, and frankly I was surprised to see this book appear at all, not having him down as a writer, or as a journalist. But he has always been one for surprises, and it seems he is well connected and was quick enough to get interviews with many of the key players, from all parties, and so this book is authentic, as far as that goes. And interesting to the likes of me. Not all the writing is pedestrian, by a long way. Brown was (p.33) "not a man with the sinewy guile to fashion a way forward in a coalition situation". Nice. *strokes chin*. Though I don't like "coalition situation" very much. But there.
Some things he chooses to point out post hoc: the LibDems noted, pre election, that they were sharing office with the Tories in 14 councils, several of them urban (Birmingham, Leeds), and the phrase "clear yellow water" is even used - ugh. Steve Hilton, senior advisor to the Tories, stressed (p. 47) that the things that divided the Tories from the LibDems, mainly Europe (and electoral reform, say I, from the perspective of now) were smaller than those that they agreed about, mainly scepticism about big government.
And this is what was being said, Wilson tells us: "circumstances would allow him (Brown) to appear the man for a crisis and he would stage a mini-revival" (p. 50). "We need a bigger swing than Margaret Thatcher", words which became common parlance within the Tory party, he tells us, same page, but Margaret Thatcher when? He does not say. Discuss. He also says (p. 53) that Cameron said "Don't report back to me", because of Cameron's own punishing schedule, "the less he knew the better.". This is always true for a candidate. But Cameron itself was saying it? Another well-used phrase is "confidence and supply", meaning that the party expecting to be in government relies upon another for "confidence" (in the event of a vote of no confidence the minority party provides support) and "supply" (the minority party supports the larger one in the event of a difficulty with "supply", which is the Appropriations or similar by which governments secure to themselves the money they need, or believe they need, for the business of their government.
Something probably unintentionally telling: "the briefings to the media were designed to relay a narrative that would destroy with the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party any chance of a deal with Labour" (p. 146). Not so much that this would be the outcome desired by the Tories, but that it would be taken for granted that it was through "the media" that LibDem (and other) MPs got their view of the world.
Some aperçus: a Tory source said "My view of what turned the Liberal Democrats our way were [sic] the position papers. They suddenly saw in black and white that we were serious, prepared to go issue by issue, that we really wanted to work out where we could stand together" (p. 160). These were pre-election Tory position papers, drawn up with just such a situation in mind. "What they all agreed on throughout the day (Sunday, p. 161) was the high quality of the biscuits as demanded by Oliver Letwin and in the main eaten by Liberal Democrat policy aide Polly Mackenzie.". I suppose it should have been obvious that voting reform was non-negotiable for the LibDems, and "deficit reduction" was for the Tories. (p. 165)
"the Prime Minister's appalling reputation for interpersonal skills" (p. 172). Well, yes. Reputation. But I know what he is like when he engages you (OK, I knew what he was like when he was Chancellor), and lights you up. Few can resist. Maybe that is a girl thing - and I am no longer a Gordon fan. But I was bowled over by him personally on more than one occasion, and he knew exactly what he was doing. So getting Gordon one to one with people was a good idea.
But still (p. 181), "With as little as 23% of the popular vote, and 57 MPs, Clegg and his team had concluded that it was right for them to choose who should not be leader of the Labour Party and who should not be Prime Minister of the UK".
Tony Blair's view, Sunday night to Monday morning (p. 191) was that "what Labour did now would be likely to affect the way people perceived the party in the months and years to come, so it was crucial to get it right" - and look what actually happened. When did Tony say this? With hindsight? And how? With glee? This book does not tell us. What it does tell us is that Ashdown and Clegg wanted Brown gone for different reasons: "Ashdown wanted to keep Labour on side in the race for power, and that could not happen with Brown as Prime Minister - Ashdown wanted his long-desired coming together with Labour. Clegg wanted options, so that he could squeeze the best possible deal from the Conservatives, while maintaining Labour as a safety net" (p. 193).
Cameron was convinced (p. 208) that Labour was offering Clegg AV without a referendum. On the Monday Clegg was bad-tempered (I do not know him personally but suspect he has a tendency to this) and told Cameron he was going to start negotiating with Labour. It is a pity this book has no index. The Tories were being held hostage (p. 211) by the LibDems, who at this stage had no coalition, and no hope of being in government. The whole thing swung on AV. Osborne had it thus: "We've made an offer on AV. We've got it through the shadow cabinet and the parliamentary party, and it's a good offer. We are the only people who can offer a stable coalition." (p. 225).
With hindsight it seems that Labour was arrogant. On the Monday Harriet Harman said that each Labour cabinet minister should thrash things out with his or her LibDem shadow.
When Cameron finally became Prime Minister the LibDem statement said (p. 277) "It is clear that some people in the Labour Party see opposition as a more attractive alternative to the challenges of creating a
progressive, reforming government, not least in the context of a Labour leadership election campaign.". Absolutely right. Then, now and always. And when did we light up the people? With Tony Blair, when we looked outwards. Still with the LibDems, only David Rendel in their federal executive voted against the deal. Wilson calls the coalition "Britain's new politics". I don't live in Britain, but it doesn't seem that way to me. There is new parliamentary arithmetic, and thus a new process of forming a government, but the politics looks the same to me.
Wilson points out that Clegg was able to achieve remarkable consensus within the parliamentary party. Well, yes. To my eyes that consensus does not appear to have been dented. Though sillier elements among the voters claim the LibDems have sold out.
I write this as the campaign in the AV referendum, which must have seemed a distant dream as these events unfolded in 2010, is reaching its closing stages, and as it looks as though the result will be No. This book may not be a deathless piece of literature, but it is a workmanlike piece of history. I watched these events unfold on Sky (the Campbell-Boulton row! What joy!) at home while recovering from an eye operation. The operation was done in Strasbourg on the day before the election, and the little hospital porter who wheeled me through the building told me he had a great interest in British political history, and had a shelf of books on the subject. Only in France? I don't know.
Labour was trashed last year in the general election. Gordon is responsible. And next month the party could make a swathe of gains despite the leadership of Ed Miliband, a man tailor-made for opposition if ever there was one, because of how the voters have perceived the coalition. The voters are mostly wrong. That is democracy's tragedy.