Last Tango in Westminster?

A review of Coalition, first broadcast on Channel 4, 28th March 2015 (Dir. Alex Holmes; written by James Graham).  Available to watch at

Director Alex Holmes and writer James Graham have succeeded in creating a watchable drama based on the events around the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in the five days after the inconclusive May 2010 general election.  My purpose is not to approach this as a TV critic but as an historian: the question here is not whether this is good drama, but whether it is good history.

To turn historical events into a watchable hour of drama is a tall order.  There are various approaches.  Richard Norton Taylor has produced a number of stage plays based on the transcripts of public inquires, for the main quoting testimony verbatim, although even here editing and selection creates issues of accuracy in representation.  Few subjects allow for such scrupulous adherence to an historical record.  Docudramas attempt to take the rigour of a documentary and dramatise it.  These tend to be journalistic and the emphasis is on factual accuracy, not dramatic impact.  Beyond this there are dramas based on the events.  These allow themselves to take some liberties with the events to present an adaptation of reality that, while maintain its essential elements, uses dramatic devices to explore personality, motivations and underlying features of a situation that could be represented through straight reportage.

Coalition is in part docudrama, but has elements of a more free-wheeling dramatisation too.  Of necessity, the number of characters is slimmed down and the words and actions of one figure folded into another.  Thus in Coalition Ed Miliband suffers the ignoble fate of being absorbed into Ed Balls.  Similarly, multiple events are combined in single hybrids.  Most importantly, characters come to represent not only themselves but something more general.  Thus Paddy Ashdown appears not just as himself, but as a kind of ghost of social democratic liberalism past, always haunting and questioning the current Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg.

These changes are necessary to make a drama out of history, and if done well can enhance our understanding.  It is not my purpose here to point out that the words coming out of George Osborne’s mouth really came out of Oliver Letwin (another mute presence in the drama).  My question is whether the choices made have created an accurate impression of events.

My answer to this question (and thus the reason for such a long review) is that this is not an entirely accurate representation of what happened, or rather that it has a systematic bias to it.  Part of the problem is that we do not know what happened.  Different participants have given accounts, and there is some conflict on some important points and these divide on party-political lines.  This programme largely follows the Liberal Democrat line for which there are, I would suggest, two reasons.  The first is that some of the most detailed accounts have been written by Liberal Democrats not least since as, Tony Blair has put it, a party that had been attacking Labour from the left since 1997 and then formed a coalition to its right in 2010 has some explaining to do.[1]  The second reason is that during the process of negotiating with Labour and the Conservatives after the 2010 election it was the Liberal Democrats who had an interest in briefing the press as part of their strategy for playing the two larger parties off against each other.  Labour and Conservative, on the other hand, had less interest in working through the media since this would only be likely to antagonise their potential coalition partner.

There are a trio of “party political” accounts of the coalition talks (all, it should be noted, published by the Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft’s publishing house, Biteback).  First out of the blocks was David Laws’s book 22 Days in May.  This is not so much a case of the victor writing history, but history written by a minister sacked over parliamentary expenses having some unexpected leisure.  Laws was a member of the Liberal Democrats negotiating team, and writes solely from that perspective.  His account therefore has little of what was going on behind closed doors in the other parties, but where he was not at a meeting including his own party (for example the pivotal meetings between Clegg and Cameron) he is often silent.

The second of these party books is Rob Wilson’s Five Days to Power, like Laws’s book written immediately after events.  Wilson has been a Conservative MP since 2005, and at the time of writing was a backbencher although he is now a junior government minister.  He has attempted to create a rounded account based on interviews across the political spectrum, although it would appear (unsurprisingly) his contacts and access to Conservative politicians is greater than for the other parties.  He also, in places, takes a partisan defence of the Conservative interest, and these are easily the least reliable parts of this book.

The last of these political books is by the Labour peer, Andrew Adonis.  5 Days in May was not published until 2013, but the bulk of it is an account in 2010 from Adonis’s view as one of Labour’s negotiators and one of Gordon Brown’s most loyal lieutenants.

There are a number of other accounts.  Particularly, another Labour peer on the negotiating team, Peter Mandelson, goes into some detail in this memoir, The Third Man (2010, revised 2011).  Two further Liberal Democrat accounts can be found in Chris Bowyer’s Nick Clegg: The Biography and Jasper Gerard’s The Clegg Coup (both 2011), although neither adds much to our understanding of the events around the formation of the coalition.  From the Conservative view Matthew D’Ancona’s In it Together (2013, revised 2014) has some valuable detail.  There are a smattering of other journalists’ and politicians’ recollections available.

The main academic work on the process comes from the Constitution Unit’s Robert Hazel and Ben Yong in their The Politics of Coalition (2012) although there is little on the details of the process of the formation of the coalition.  It should be noted that the Constitution Unit are also players in the drama, acting as the provisional wing of the Civil Service; along with the Institute of Government and civil servants in the Cabinet Office, they helped form the playbook under which the negotiations happened.  Other academic accounts are equally sparing with the prosaic detail.  Mike Finn’s chapter on the formation of the coalition in the volume he co-edited with Anthony Seldon, The Coalition Effect (2015) recognise the different viewpoints of the participants but draws a conclusion, obvious in hindsight, that parliamentary arithmetic and policy convergence made the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition the most likely outcome.  A more substantial independent account can be found in Anthony Seldon and Guy Lodge’s Brown at 10 (2010) which contains some detail but looks at events only in relation to the dying days of Brown’s premiership.  (It is to be assumed that the perspective from the side of the coalition partners will constitute the open page of Seldon and Peter Snowdon’s Cameron at 10 to be published in August 2015).  A somewhat broader and useful account can be found in Denis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley’s The British General Election of 2010 (2010).  A last valuable source is Nick Robinson’s BBC television documentary of June 2010, 5 Days that Changed Britain which includes a good amount of interview material with many of the participants including David Cameron and Nick Clegg although not Gordon Brown.[2]

This article will use these sources to review the accuracy of the claims made in Coalition.  Each heading in bold refers to a claim made in the drama.  The material under it an assessment of each claim’s validity.


The Analysis

Below I have broken down Coalition into thirty six chunks and tested each against a reading of the available evidence.  These thirty six chunks cover much of the main thrust of the programme, although there are minor episodes, non-contentious elements and side issues that I have not analysed.  In each case a summary of what is stated in Coalition is followed by an assessment.

  1. There is a large amount of background material in the first few minutes of the programme. This starts with the first leaders’ debate being presented as a game changer for Nick Clegg, through to the BBC-ITN-Sky News exit poll predicting that the Lib Dems would lose seats and the Conservatives had not picked up a majority.

All of this is fair enough.  Although many politicians would have been cautious about the BBC-ITN-SkyNews exit poll (Vince Cable told the BBC that night that these polls can often be “horribly wrong”[3]) as the results started to come in it became clear that the prediction was accurate, although the Liberal Democrats did slightly worse than it predicted winning 57 seats not 61.  This was certainly a crushing blow for the Liberal Democrats as shown, and cheering for Labour who were far from humiliated.

Verdict: A reasonable representation of events.


  1. Early Friday morning in a hotel room. Cameron and Osborne have a discussion and agree that a coalition with Lib Dems is the right way to proceed and that it might even help share the blame for cuts with the Liberal Democrats who might also be a counterbalance the right of the Conservative Party.

The location is certainly fair enough.  By Friday morning the Conservative leadership had based itself in the Westminster Plaza Hotel.  Naturally, the conversation is an amalgam of several in the preceding hours.  On election night the Conservative strategist and Cameron ally Nick Boles sent an email to Osborne, Cameron and Michael Gove that stated: “It is essential that we make the Lib-Dems share equally the blame for the cuts that are to come … To secure a coalition agreement, we would need to concede a referendum on electoral reform.”[4]

Cameron had not waited until the morning to start thinking about this.  While being driven back to London around 4am he had been on the phone to his aids and Osborne, who at that stage had been in favour of pushing Brown out of Downing Street as quickly as possible and forming a minority government (although later that morning he accepted that an agreement with the liberals was the way forward).  The earliest contact made between Conservative and Liberal Democrat staff was around 5am, although all agreed to wait until most of the results were in.[5]

Verdict: A reasonable summary of events, although perhaps shows the Conservatives to be too single minded on a coalition.  Minority government, particularly with a confidence and supply agreement with the Liberals (they would vote to the Conservatives in government and pass their budget in turn for some concessions, while remaining out of govt and on the opposition benches).


  1. Laws and Ashdown speak on the balcony of the Liberal Democrat campaign headquarters at Cowley Street. Ashdown argues going with the Tories is not an option and that it would be “heresy” for which their party and they would “string us up”.

This scene, down to Ashdown puffing on a cigarette, is taken form Laws’s book.  But the content of the conversation is not.  Some of this is fair enough.  Ashdown’s comment that he “can’t think of a more torturous situation for the electorate to have put [the Lib Dems] in” with Conservatives lacking enough seats to go it alone even as a minority government, and Labour lacking the seats to form a coalition with the LibDems were said by him, but to the media.[6]  But the bulk of the conversation Laws reports having is entirely different in tone, Ashdown reporting that Clegg didn’t think that Labour had enough MPs to form a government, even with Lib Dem support and that they would certainly be talking to the Conservatives first.  If anything, there was a belief among some Liberal Democrats that talks with Labour were ruled out.[7]  In Laws’s account, Ashdown thought that a coalition with Labour was simply not practicable at this stage, and only coming round to the possibility of it on Sunday and it becoming his preferred solution on Monday.[8]

What the programme makers are trying to do here is to make Ashdown the personification of the left-leaning tendency in the Lib Dems, a role that falls entirely on his shoulders since neither Vince Cable nor Ming Campbell were central to events on the Lib Dem side and neither is represented in this drama.  Ashdown acts as a voice for these, creating a tension that Clegg has to overcome.  This makes perfect dramatic sense.  The problem is Ashdown did not think many of the words put into his mouth.

Verdict:  A questionable summary of events.  The Ashdown character is really the ghost of left-ish Liberal Democracy and bears little relationship with the real character.


  1. Brown is shown as awkward, uncomfortable and something of a buffoon in the early stages (later he become more of a tragic, powerless, King Lear figure). Examples are his discomfort in the three leaders TV debate, the fact that he had a sleep while the polls were closing on election night and spills coffee on his shirt on Friday morning.

This is unremitting stuff focused on Brown, which is probably unfair.  By all reports Brown can be dismissive and rude, but also can turn on the charm when he wants.  A sleep before the media frenzy of election night (which in this case turned out to be a very long night indeed) is something that many politicians will seek.  Clegg and Cameron too suffer from one dimensional characterisations – Clegg is portrayed as a lost little boy, Cameron as somewhat scheming but Brown gets it worst.  But the impossibility of working with Brown (rather than simply the political obstacle that backing a government led by the Prime Minister who so clearly lost the election) was an important part of the Lib Dems narrative about the discussions after the election.

Verdict: Questionable one-dimensional characterisation of Brown in line with the Lib Dem narrative.


  1. On the Friday morning Brown is pushing hard for a coalition with the LibDems. Mandelson remains unconvinced, but carries out orders.

Brown’s determination to seek a coalition is certainly accurate, indeed those close to him suggest that he was at his most single minded and determined to do this.  Mandelson’s scepticism about both the possibility and desirability is spot-on too.[9]  There is strong evidence that Mandelson realised very early on that if an agreement between the LibDems and Labour were to be possible, then it could not happen under Brown’s leadership.[10]  What is less accurate is the implication here, and elsewhere, that Labour were unprepared for coalition (see below).

Verdict:  An accurate summary of events.


  1. Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell is shown as highly prepared and selecting “Scenario 4” for the situation. He is concerned about the consequences of the Eurocrisis and wishes to see a quick resolution to any talks.

Absolutely true.  He was particularly worried because, having role played all the possible outcomes of the election, Scenario 4 was the one where the civil service do not achieve a satisfactory outcome.[11]


  1. Gus O’Donnell reacts to Mandelson’s announcement that Brown and team are on their way to Downing Street by telling him that they are not the government anymore and Brown is “technically” not Prime Minster.

This, I suspect, could not be more wrong.  There is a constitutional side to this story which Coalition does not really deal with.  (Fair enough, they only have an hour and the arcane nature of the British constitution is hardly the stuff of popular TV, but if it touches on these issues it should get them right.)

There had been a considerable restating (and perhaps even recasting) of the constitutional conventions around the possibly of a hung parliament before the election.  As the head of the Civil Service, the Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell, was keen for a clear procedure to be laid out.  The Queen’s Private Secretary, Christopher Geidt, had also been involved in the process and his interest was to keep the Queen out of any political controversy.  The outcome of this was the agreement that the outgoing PM should remain in a caretaker role until it had been established that a new PM had emerged, for example one with a coalition agreement that suggested that they would be able to command a majority in the House of Commons.  Thus Brown was far from being a squatter in No. 10 (as The Sun put it on the Saturday, in a nice detail Brown is pictured reading the headline on the Saturday morning suggesting, rightly I think, that he felt under at least some pressure to reach a resolution one way or the other).  Under the interpretation of the rules being pushed by O’Donnell and Geidt Brown left Number 10 at the first opportunity.  Indeed, by leaving before there was an agreement he was bending “the rules” somewhat, but then so was Clegg by attempting to use the position as leverage.  But these “rules” are no more conventions, descriptions of behaviour and precedent, not rules that are in any way enforceable.[12]

In the drama O’Donnell questions whether Brown is still PM, but I have found no evidence to support this.  O’Donnell had written the playbook that suggested that Brown should remain as PM.  “Government continues” is the constitutional convention: Peter Mandelson was still Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.  The civil servants in the Downing Street complex (or anywhere else in Whitehall) would not be clearing anyone’s desk while Brown was still PM.  The drama does show Stewart Wood (a senior policy adviser to Brown as PM) unable to log onto his computer.  This could well be true, as Wood was a Spad (Special Advisor, political advisors appointed as, in effect, temporary civil servants) it is likely that he would have resigned when the election was called since civil service rules would have barred him from playing any role in the election campaign.

But there was no trouble with special advisers and other political appointments regaining access to Downing Street.  Thus when Brown told the head of his Number 10 Strategy Unit Gavin Kelly and his Deputy Chief of Staff Nick Pearce to start working on a coalition agreement in Downing Street on Friday morning, they had to make a phone call to the Duty Officer and gain entrance (although the drama is right to the extent that they were asked to use the entrance to the Cabinet Office at 70 Whitehall rather than the Downing Street door with its media encampment).[13]

While it is likely that Spads could not log into their government computer accounts, it seems very unlikely that Peter Mandelson would have suffered this fate.  Labour government ministers continued to be government ministers.  So, for example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling attended an EU summit on the Eurozone crisis on Sunday while negotiations were going on.  Although he rang both Vince Cable and George Osborne to discuss what he was agreeing to, he was under no obligation to do so.[14]

All of the parties had signed up to this procedure, and the leader of neither the Lib Dems nor the Conservatives suggested that Brown should go early: they needed time to negotiate an agreement.  There were those in the press that suggested that Brown was a “squatter” in Downing Street, and it is surprising to see Coalition buying into this narrative.  Indeed, there is a case that Brown had public support for forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.  Not only was it the case that the public viewed the Lib Dems as closer to Labour than to the Conservatives, on the key policy of deficit reduction the Lib Dem’s manifesto commitment of a more gradual reduction in spending so as to stimulate growth was also closer to Labour’s.  A Populus opinion poll published in The Times on Saturday 8th May recorded that 53 per cent supported a Conservative minority government with liberal support with 47 per opposed.  The next most popular option was a Labour government with Lib Dem support, with 51 per cent in favour, and 45 per cent against.  Only 46 per cent favour a formal Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, with 52 per cent against.  Even the option of Brown staying as PM was not hugely unpopular, with 43 per cent supporting this and 45 per cent opposing. [15]

Verdict:  Inaccurate representation of the constitutional position.


  1. Friday morning: the Conservatives have a conference call/Shadow Cabinet meeting and Cameron wins the argument for a coalition. “You’ve been planning this” says Patrick McLoughlin (the the Conservative Chief Whip), dismissively to George Osborne as he produces a document analysing Lib Dem policy for overlap with Conservative policy.

The early morning conference call/Shadow cabinet meeting is supported by Wilson’s and other accounts (although the Conservatives were still in the Westminster Plaza Hotel, not their Milbank campaign HQ as shown in the drama).[16]  It is also quite right that Osborne had been part of a team (in which Oliver Letwin had done most of the work on Lib Dem policy) that Cameron had appointed after the three leaders election debate when he realised that a deal with the LibDems (not necessarily a coalition) might be necessary.  Whether Patrick McLoughlin had the hostile attitude depicted, I don’t know.

More generally there is a fault line in the narrative presented in the programme here.  On the one hand there is the idea that Cameron and Osborne were making up the coalition policy on the hoof (Friday morning in the hotel discussion with Cameron and Osborne above, Cameron’s Friday 2:30pm speech analysed below).  On the other hand the Conservatives are shown as being highly prepared and launching a pre-conceived offensive to win the Lib Dems support that the hapless Labour leadership were unwilling to match.

The first of these, that it was only as events became clear that the decision to pursue a coalition, appears to be the Conservative party line.  For example, William Hague (who was a member of the team looking at the election has said that there were no more than musings about a coalition before the election.  David Cameron has said of seeking an agreement that “On the morning …. This seemed the right thing to do”.[17]

Matthew D’Ancona’s account points to the second option, that there had been some forethought and Osborne had role played the scenarios: “Two things seemed immediately clear to him.  First, that even if Clegg took the bait and entered into constructive negotiations with the Tories, they would break off at some point and talk to Labour – if only to strengthen his hand.  Second, that if they want a coalition, the Tories would have to offer Clegg a referendum on electoral reform at Westminster.”[18]

Kavanagh and Cowley support this second view, suggesting that the Conservative leadership had researched post-election deals even before the first leaders’ debate.  It was only after this that they decided to draw up a paper and appoint a negotiating team (Letwin, Osborne, Ed Llewellyn, William Hague).  On election night Cameron authorised the team to make contact with the Lib Dems at 4am, and Llewellyn texted Danny Alexander.  They agreed to talk later.  By mid-morning the Conservatives favoured a formal coalition, leading to Cameron’s 2:30pm statement on Friday.[19]

Verdict: while the material in this section is factually accurate, there is a problem opening up with two different views on Cameron/Osborne and the genesis of the plans for a coalition.


  1. David Laws and Nick Clegg are heading for Lib Dem HQ at Cowley Street. Clegg asks if Cameron or Brown have said anything yet, and Laws tells him he thinks they are waiting for him. 

This is not in line with the published accounts.  Wilson’s account suggests that by this stage the Conservative and Liberal teams had been in close contact.[20]  Laws’s account suggests some, less extensive, contact. [21]  The drama depicts Cameron staring anxiously at the TV screen as Clegg arrives at Cowley Street.  According to Wilson’s report, Cameron already knew the line that Clegg was to take.

Verdict: Not accurate.  These changes, if that is what they are, are an attempt to inject drama and tension into the situation.  But the purpose of a play like this is to find drama implicit in the situation not create it but altering the narrative.


  1. Friday, around 10am. Brown is insisting to Mandelson that they contact the LibDems. But they have not yet.

Andrew Adonis had already been in contact with Paddy Ashdown, Danny Alexander and David Laws before Clegg’s 10:30am statement.[22]  The first communication is shown in the drama to be Danny Alexander texting Mandelson after Clegg’s statement and telling him the Lib Dems also want to talk to Labour. Laws suggests that the two had a conversation, but that Mandelson rang Alexander (but then he would say that).  Mandelson does not say who phoned whom but does state that Alexander stated that the Lib Dems were open to a twin track dialogue.[23]

Verdict: Not entirely accurate.  Again, the impression being given is of Brown and Labour foundering and without direction.  The reality appears to be that Brown was focused, his core team accepting the lead and actively attempting to set the pace.


  1. A missing speech.

Coalition, I am arguing, is setting up a narrative of Labour lacking direction and pace.  It is very notable that while it includes the speech made by Clegg on Friday morning, and Cameron’s speech at 2:30pm, it omits the speech that Brown made (deliberately to get in before Cameron) at 1:30pm on that Friday.  Here, Brown expressed his openness to discussions with the Lib Dems with a clear pitch with a promise for a referendum on electoral reform.[24]  This omission is generally in line with a view in this drama that Labour had done little to prepare for the prospect of a coalition.  This does not appear to be the case, for example Labour team had attempted to talk to the Lib Dems before the election, but had been rebuffed.  Labour had prepared documentation on the LibDems policy which was handed to Brown the day before the election.[25]

Verdict:  The absence of this speech demonstrates a clear imbalance in Coalition.


  1. Friday 2:30pm Cameron’s speech making an offer to the Liberal democrats. The implication here is that the “big, open.” bit was off the cuff.

It is clearly not the case that Cameron was seizing the moment in the speech as shown in the drama.  It is clear from watching video of the speech that Cameron is reading throughout (see  Indeed, Wilson’s account of events show that the content of the speech was a matter of considerable effort.  The first draft had the word “coalition” throughout which was then completely exorcised.  Every word was carefully placed; it was not a speech that Cameron was departing from.[26]   Again, the drama is pursuing the line that Cameron and his allies are out alone, cut off from their party and improvising.  This is simply not true.

Verdict:  Total fiction.  This appears simply to be making up a story that Cameron is dragging his party into coalition by rewriting the script as he goes along.


  1. Brown’s immediate reaction to Cameron’s speech is that he has admitted defeated. Mandelson disagrees, and sees this as a brilliant bit of positioning as the agent of change and the new politics.

This is well supported in a number of sources

Verdict:  Accurate.


  1. Friday afternoon. Clegg and Cameron on the phone about talks.  Clegg wants talks on Saturday, but Cameron railroads him into talks that evening.

There is a telescoping of events here.  The Conservative and Liberal teams met on Friday to discuss procedures and process, and then again on Sunday (and onwards) on the details of policy.  The first two of these meetings are merged into one, presented as being on Friday, but with the content of the meeting on Sunday.  This phone calls was at 4pm on Friday (although Cameron and Clegg also talked on the phone later that evening).  Rather than being railroaded into early talks (as shown), Clegg insisted on this first meeting begin preparatory only.[27]

Verdict:  an inaccurate picture of Cameron succeeding in winning substantive talks early.


  1. When Clegg has agreed to the Liberal Democrat and Conservative negotiators meeting on Friday evening, Osborne is immediately able to pull out a document that is the basis for negotiating an agreement and have copies printed for the meeting.

This problem follows on from merging the minor (Friday night) meeting with the substantive beginning of negotiations (Sunday).  This document went to the Sunday meeting.  And it was not prêt-a-porter, rather it was a bespoke creation made by Oliver Letwin and party workers which took most of Saturday.[28]

The impression is given of Conservatives being more prepared than they actually were.  Although Letwin’s work on Lib Dem policy before the election laid the basis for this negotiating document, Coalition exaggerates the degree to which some in the Conservative leadership had prepared (and perhaps even hoped for) this event.

Verdict: Misleading.  The problem here isn’t the telescoping of events, and certainly absorbing Letwin into Osborne makes little difference.  The problem is misrepresenting how the Conservative’s negotiating position came about (suggesting that it was written before not after the election) and moving substantive negotiations forward two days.


  1. A beautiful aside.

There are a number of great little sly comments inserted into this.  My very favourite is when the Conservative team are looking through the Lib Dem negotiators and reach Chris Huhne, Andy Coulson says: “Marital difficulties, apparently”.  As everyone now knows, Cameron’s communications chief had been in charge at the News of World when phones were being routinely tapped, including Huhne and his then wife, Vikki Price.  The irony is there was no stronger supporter of a coalition with the Conservatives on the Lib Dem’s side than Huhne.


  1. As the Lib Dems leave for the Friday talks with the Conservatives, the ever present Paddy Ashdown looks at a large file and comments that they have been preparing for this.

Quite so.  It is widely known that Nick Clegg appointed a team (that were to became the negotiating team) to look at how they could approach talks after the election in late 2009.  The team produced a report in early 2010.  They had drawn up both a document with the policy demands for a coalition and a confidence and supply agreement.[29]

Verdict: Accurate.  The Lib Dems had been preparing to negotiate.


  1. Friday afternoon: The Lib Dem and Conservative negotiators meet.  O’Donnell offers paper briefings on the financial crisis and says that he will stay and take.  Both are declined.

The Friday evening talks were preparatory, not substantive negotiations.  The initial negotiations that (in fact) occurred on Sunday.  This is a broadly accurate picture of how the Sunday meeting started.  The briefings offered were not paper briefings however, but from the governor or the Bank of England and the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee.[30]

This meeting is shown as being in the afternoon, actually it was much later, at 8pm in the evening.[31].    Crucially this leads to a reordering of events.


Verdict:  It is misleading to place this meeting on Friday.  The substantial discussions started on Sunday.  The drama uses this meeting as a motivation for some of the actors later on Friday and Saturday, which is clearly wrong.


  1. Friday afternoon. Paddy Ashdown rings Gordon Brown stating that he thinks that he can facilitate parallel talks with Nick Clegg.

The idea that talks were facilitated by Ashdown seems to be entirely a device by the programme to give this framing.  There is no evidence that this is how things happened, indeed, at this point, Ashdown thought that only a coalition with the Conservatives was possible.[32]  Although Brown had been talking to people somewhat out of the loop (Ming, Cable, Ashdown) , there were other contacts through the two teams too.

Verdict: the use of the figure of Ashdown as the spirit of the older left-leaning Liberalism has little basis in fact.


  1. Friday afternoon. Brown and Clegg talk on the phone.  In the phone call Brown lectures Clegg.

This phone call was at 5pm on Friday.[33]  It is one of the major points of contention in competing narratives of the coalition talks.  Most importantly, the next day Jon Sopel reported for the BBC not only that the phone call had taken place but that Brown had embarked on “a diatribe” and “a rant” was “threatening in his approach to Nick Clegg”.  These remarks were attributed to a “very senior Lib Dem source who is involved in the negotiations with the Conservatives.”[34]

Even more remarkable is who Sopel’s source in the Lib Dems was.  According to Andrew Adonis it was Paddy Ashdown.[35]  This is consistent with Laws’s account that states that at this point Ashdown thought that an agreement with the Conservatives was all that was possible.[36]

Mandelson, who was listening in on the call thought that Brown was heavy handed[37] and Laws’s account is that the phone call was quite long and one-sided[38]  Other Labour sources suggest a more constructive call.  Clegg himself has suggested that the phone call was not as bad as it has been portrayed.[39]

The picture here of the phone call itself is not as extreme as the Sopel account, and possibly in line with Mandelson’s “heavy handed” approach.  But the aftermath shown is exactly as Sopel reported, based on his Lid Dem sources: “Nick Clegg came off the phone at the end feeling that while politically the Labour Party and Lib Dems may not be that far apart, actually the person in the shape of Gordon Brown would be someone it would be impossible to enter into a partnership with because of his general attitude in working with other people.”[40]  This is exactly what the drama shows.

Verdict:  Debatable accuracy.  What is shown is clearly part of the narrative that the Lib Dems built up around the negotiations.  It is tempting to think that this picture is reasonable (Brown was well known for lecturing and not listening, Clegg did not get on with at all, even Mandelson says he was heavy handed).  The problem is that (as we will see) this is part of a pattern of accepting the narrative of events created by the Lib Dems that runs through this drama.


  1. Late Friday: Late night debriefing among the Lib Dem negotiators, Clegg and Ashdown.  The big thing that the Conservatives are asking for is £6 billion in cuts in 2010/11, something the Lib Dems had opposed.   Clegg argues for accepting it, including dropping the Lib Dems commitment to scrap tuition fees prompting an argument with Ashdown.

It is perhaps a little beside the point that this did not happen, the scene is necessary in terms of the drama to show that the key change the Lib Dems made in the negotiations was to accept the faster deficit reduction plans of the Conservatives.  There was clearly a preparedness in the Lib Dems to make this change and so this did not create, as far as I can ascertain, a show down with Ashdown (or anyone else) the scene does show that this was a change in Lib Dem orientation.  This is a marked change between the new generation of leadership (Clegg, Laws, Alexander) and the old (Ashdown, Ming Campbell, Vince Cable).  There are mixed reports about Ashdown’s view on the talks with the Conservatives.  There is some evidence that he was genuinely angry at the prospect of a deal with the Conservatives[41] although elsewhere his public and private mobilisation of support is seen as licensed by the Lib Dem leadership to keep the prospect of a coalition with Labour alive only as a bargaining chip with the Conservative.[42]

Verdict:  An acceptable fictional dramatisation of the change in the Lib Dems position of defect reduction.  It is consistent with other evidence that this move came as early Friday night.


Saturday 8th May 2010

  1. Saturday morning: Brown tries to talk to Clegg at the Cenotaph ceremony commemorating VE day.  Cameron spots this and intervenes.

There appear to be a basis to this.[43]  And in terms of the drama it does show that Brown is very keen to be talking with the Lib Dems and moving to a deal.

Verdict:  reasonable dramatisation of events.


  1. Later on Saturday morning Ashdown speaks to Brown on the phone and promises he can arrange a meeting with Clegg. Later, Clegg tells his negotiators to meet with Labour, although the implication is that these talks will not lead anywhere and will merely be so the wider party can see that they have tried.

The implication here is of a tension within the liberal democrats between the younger more market orientated Lib Dems represented by Clegg who are less interested in a deal with Labour and feel that they have to at least go through the motions to placate the activists in the party and some of their MPs; and the older generation of social democratic liberals represented by Ashdown who favour a deal with Labour.  The split is real enough, and here this is dramatised by personifying it, even if people are always more complicated that the bearers of individual ideas.

The problem is that the dramatic persona of Ashdown is given belief and performs actions which are quite contrary to the real Ashdown.  Ashdown was, at this time, pessimistic about the chances of a Labour coalition and was not Gordon Brown’s favoured recipient of phone calls (he rang Ming Campbell and Vince Cable).  Perhaps it is fair enough that Ashdown is a composite of these three characters.  Cable was not, to the surprise of many, a Lib Dem negotiator.  But he was in the Lib Dem’s reference group to whom the negotiators reported back.[44]  By all reports he was not particularly vocal in this role.

What is perhaps more concerning is showing the arrangement of the Brown-Clegg meeting coming from Ashdown as a force of social democratic liberalism in conflict with the Clegg-Laws-Alexander group.  This is used in the drama to lend weight to the view that Clegg was fighting against the old spirit of the party that hoisted these talks on him.  The talks were, it would appear, organised in phone calls between Danny Alexander and Peter Mandelson[45] as part of the ongoing dialogue the two had been engaged in since Friday morning.   The degree to which it was merely a negotiating ploy (or a tactic to keep the party happy) at this point it is hard to assess, but the earliest assessment of the point where Clegg decided on a deal with the Conservatives is Sunday morning.[46]

Verdict: This is fiction.  Again, Ashdown is being used as the ghost of social democratic liberalism past.  He is not the “real” Ashdown at all, who had quite a different role and opinions.


  1. Saturday midday: There is a “fair votes” demonstration outside of Lib Dem HQ.  Peter Mandelson implies that this has been created by Labour Party workers to put pressure on the Lib Dems.

The demonstration was real, and the claim that Mandelson in the drama is supported by at least one source is correct.  Adonis states that this demonstration had been planned by Young Labour supporters in the week before the election in anticipation of this eventuality.[47]

The evidence here is that the demonstration organised by a small group, openDemocracy/Our Kingdom, and more particularly Guy Aitchison, a postgrad student at UCL.[48]  Aitchison is clearly on the left but not a Labour apparatchik.[49]  But there is no reason to doubt that Labour used this demonstration to put pressure on the Lib Dems and may even have engendered it.

Verdict:  A grounded assertion which would bear further scrutiny.


  1. Saturday afternoon: Labour are unprepared for the negotiations. Mandelson says that they should “wing it”.  In the meeting Labour has no written proposals, other than a folded scrap of paper in Mandelson’s pocket and Ed Balls sits arms crossed and hostile.

This again is very much part of the Lib Dem narrative.  There is clear truth in the claim that Labour were less prepared for negotiations than either the Lib Dems or the Conservatives, both of which had convened their negotiating teams before the election.  There is also support for the idea that Labour were winging it from Mandelson and Balls, both of whom have stated that they had no brief.[50]  This was certainly the case for Balls, who was a late change to the team, replacing Alastair Darling who had been pulled maybe because he thought the coalition was a bad idea, but was also in the middle of G7 and EU talks on the Euro crisis.[51]  As a result Balls had to drive down from his West Yorkshire constituency immediately before the meeting, and had not been around for the discussions the previous day as shown in the programme.[52]  But Adonis reports that Brown and the Labour Deputy Leader, Harriet Harman, had a meeting to discuss negotiating positions in the morning and that a paper had been prepared and circulated.[53]

Even Laws’s record of the meeting is a mixed picture, finding Mandelson lacking urgency but Adonis engaged and Ed Miliband constructive although he implies that Ed Balls was not helpful.  Laws’s complaint that the meeting was more of an exchange than a negotiation is odd since this was a preliminary meeting, and thus exactly not a negotiation[54]  Against the Lib Dem narrative of Labour being unenthusiastic, there is a plausible view that it was Labour who were taken back by the bullish attitude of the Lib Dems, and particularly their shift on faster deficit reduction.[55]

There is a tendency in the drama to show Labour as chaotic and under-organised.  While it is true that they were the least prepared of the three parties, they were not totally unprepared.  According to Seldon and Lodge (Seldon’s instant histories of British government are usually pretty good) Brown had asked for some work on the “ramifications” of the Lib-Lab coalition before the election and had set some of this advisors to work on the issues on election day.  This view is also supported by Kavanagh and Cowley[56]

According to Seldon and Lodge, immediately after he returned to London on Friday Brown started work on planning coalition talks:

“On Friday morning, [Gavin] Kelly [Deputy Chief of Staff] and [Nick] Pearce [head of the Policy Unit] sat down to work out what a coalition policy agreement might look like.  They had done some initial work on this on election day and produced a long note laying out Brown’s options.  The Policy Unit has also drawn up confidential documents based on potential points of agreement and friction between the manifestos of the two parties in the preceding weeks.”[57]  (455)

Verdict:  This again to accept the Lib Dem narrative that Labour where unprepared for talks and somewhat hostile.


  1. Saturday night. The first Clegg-Cameron meeting.  This is presented as more about Cameron attempting to deflect discussion about policy and blind Clegg with flattery by offering him the title of Deputy Prime Minister in a putative coalition government.

It is difficult to know what happened in this meeting since the only people present were Cameron and Clegg and both have an interest in establishing a particular narrative about the developing relationship between the two leaders.  Wilson’s account would appear to be based on interviews with both leaders and is the best we have at the moment.  This reports a convivial meeting, with both leaders reporting a positive meeting.  Policy differences that needed to be reconciled were discussed, although not resolved.  Clegg, Wilson reports, was particularly concerned about carrying his party.

The drama does, briefly cover this ground with Cameron emphasising a similarity in political outlook and Clegg stating his need to take the party with the meeting mainly shown as Cameron attempting to manipulate Clegg.  Cameron also is depicted as playing on the two men’s common social background (growing up in the poshest Berkshire, educated at top-end public schools), and attempting to close off discussion on policy with the offer of the title of Deputy PM.  The next scene shows Clegg telling Laws that he will not be flattered, and for him it is about policy.  But there is enough in the meeting to convince Clegg that he can work with Cameron.  Thus, on the whole the drama uses this opportunity to suggest that Cameron is attempting to manipulate Clegg, something that is not highlighted in any of the reports of the encounter.

There is an interesting detail that is not consistent with Wilson’s report.  Cameron was not dressed in a suit, but in that casual-Dave attire (the one that looks like it is out of one of those clothing catalogues for fifty shades of chinos).  This is perhaps an early sign of Cameron’s willingness to let others work out the detail while he steps back (an attitude that some have characterised as cavalier or showing a lack of interest in the detail).

Verdict:  In some ways this is reasonably close to the meeting as summarised in Wilson’s account.  However, there is an attempt to build up a narrative to the Conservatives attempting to play the Liberal Democrats but Nick Clegg standing up to this.  While this was not the Lib Dem narrative in the talks, it remains a pro-Lib Dem interpretation.


  1. Later that evening the Liberal Democrat’s leadership (that is the new guard, Clegg, Alexander and Laws without any of the old social democratic liberals) decide they cannot work with Labour (“body language” all wrong) and they must they go for a deal with the Conservatives. Any talks with Labour from now on are only to put pressure on the Conservatives.  Working with Labour is no longer seen as an option, unless Brown is no longer leader which appears to have dawned on the Lib Dems at this point.

This meeting is something of a fiction.  In reality, this is Saturday evening the Conservative and Liberal democrats’ negotiators have yet to meet so the Lib Dems’ leadership were not yet ready to commit to the Conservatives.  The trajectory presented in the drama has very little to do with the picture that emerges from a careful reading of the available sources.

The body language point is a highly contested one.  Adonis feels this is an example of the Lib Dems attempting to blame Labour for talks with them not progressing (largely for the benefit of the wider Lib Dems MPs and the wider party).  I suspect that Adonis is right since the underlying reasons why the Lib Dem leadership favoured by the Conservatives are twofold.  The, first, obvious reason is that the Conservatives and Lib Dems had a majority and could form a government that was stable and new, whereas by supporting Labour the Lib Dems would not only be seen as supporting a defeated government but the one that could collapse at any time leaving the Lib Dems electorally exposed.  The second reason is that party leadership, after the election, come to favour more rapid deficit reduction than Labour.  The problem is not that these elements are absent here, they are both highlighted at times, but that the theme of Labour being psychologically unprepared to deal (as summarised in the “body-language” remark and soon became a more general issue of Labour tribalism) is made the key consideration.  This remains important, indeed now (in the run-up to the 2015 general election) many leading Lib Dems continue to cite Labour’s “tribal” nature as a reason why a coalition with Labour would not be possible in contrast to the more “transactional” Conservatives.[58]

The question of the Labour leadership had been in everyone’s minds from early on Friday morning, and to present it as only coming up on last thing on Saturday night is purely an invention to create a coherent time-bound subplot in the drama.  It was everyone’s assumption that Brown would only be the PM for an interim period, although no-one had thought through the detail of how his replacement would be chosen – if the Labour Party selected a leader who was unacceptable to the Lib Dems, which meant anyone but Alan Johnson or David Miliband, this could end any Lib Dem support for a Labour-led government.

Verdict:  There is a cumulative effect of moving events around and placing emphasis on certain aspects of them that by this stage has led to a distorted picture emerging.


Sunday 9th May 2010

  1. Paddy Ashdown rings Gordon Brown and says that he is trying to get talks with Labour going but that Labour team gave every impression of not wanting to be at the previous day’s meeting.

There are again problems here with the ordering of events.  The meeting that the “bad-body language” accusation was levelled at was not on Saturday, but on Monday.  Ashdown did not ring Gordon, he texted Andrew Adonis (on Tuesday morning).  At the same time, Ashdown had been on Radio 4 arguing for a minority Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition that dared the smaller parties to join the Conservatives in voting against it.[59]  At this point Brown had announced his resignation as leader.  But what is seen in Coalition the ghost Ashdown again, the ectoplasm of past social liberalism.  While the real Ashdown was moving slowly towards thinking that a coalition with Labour was possible but only without Brown,[60] and that his role at this stage was not ringing up Brown but suggesting that he should be removed as leader.

Verdict:  There is a real problem here in that real events have been taken and re-ordered to create a story.  But increasingly that story bears little relationship to real events.


  1. Sunday 1:30 pm. Another missing meeting.

The general picture given by the drama is that the trio of Lib Dem leaders lead their hesitant party (personified by Ashdown) into coalition with the Conservatives.  This is not entirely accurate.  In a meeting of the Lib Dem parliamentary group on Sunday lunchtime, Clegg was tending to a position where he thought that coalition would not be possible, not least because he thought that the Conservatives would not offer a deal on electoral reform.  He favoured instead a more limited confidence and supply agreement, whereby the Lib Dems would keep the Conservatives in government in return for some concessions, but remain in opposition with the freedom to vote against specific policies.  It was the Liberal MPs and peers who insisted the leadership seek to form a coalition, with an agreement on electoral reform, with one of the major parties.[61]

Verdict: Missing this out is not justified.  The Liberal party were not standing in the way of a coalition with the Conservatives.  Rather they were insisting on it.  What this means is that Cameron could only form a govt with the Lib Dems and a deal on electoral reform


  1. Sunday’s Brown-Clegg meeting. Clegg uses this meeting to force Brown out of the leadership of the Labour Party.  He makes it very clear that there can be no deal with Brown as leader.

There were actually two meetings between Brown and Clegg on the Sunday.  The first, in the afternoon, was in the Foreign Office (in the so-called “Ricketts meeting” named after the permanent secretary in whose office they met) and focused mainly on electoral reform.  The second was in the PM’s room in the House of Commons and it is this one that is mainly represented here.  It is true that Brown’s route to this meeting included walking through an underground tunnel to the Ministry of Defence. The film makers are quite entitled to make it as a metaphor, and it is also not a problem that they seek to slim down the number of meetings by combining these two meetings.

What is less reasonable is that in combining the two meetings sight is lost of the extent to which Brown was attempting to use these meetings to make strong offers to the Liberal Democrats about their potential position in a coalition.  Second, even the story that is carried about Clegg forcing Brown to go is only true in a very general sense.  It would appear to be true that the second meeting was tense, but the problem was that what Clegg took away from it was not that Brown would be out of office by October, but that he might not resign in that time scale.[62]

Mandelson’s suggestion that Brown would stay for the first half of a four year term was a real proposal in that second meeting, but one that led the Lib Dems to thinking that Brown had backed out of a previous understanding that he would go.  This led to a great deal of activity, not least when Laws told Ashdown of Brown’s seeming hesitancy on the Sunday night, Ashdown rang up Tony Blair to put pressure on Brown to step down.[63]  It was all of this pressure, in part orchestrated by the Lib Dems, that led Brown to step down following another meeting between Brown and Clegg on Monday morning.[64]

Verdict:  For sure this has been simplified, perhaps a little too much, but the basic story would appear to be correct.  Brown’s resignation was a response to pressure by, or engendered by the Lib Dems.


Monday 10th May 2010

  1. Monday Morning: Brown announces he is standing down as Labour Party leader. This leads the Conservatives to believe that they are “finished” and this means that they have to make an offer on reform.  Ashdown is critical of Clegg for forcing out Brown.  Clegg states that he is only interested in keeping Brown in No. 10 long enough to clinch a deal with the Conservatives.

As stated above, Ashdown wanted Brown to go and had been working for this.  The real Ashdown, rather than the drama’s social liberal spectre, would not criticise Clegg for this.  It is true that there is strong evidence that the Conservatives were beginning to think that events were drifting away from them,[65] although the degree to which this was the motivation for cutting a deal on electoral reform is questionable since (as shown above) they were had always been an awareness that this would probably be necessary.  The degree to which this was a cynical ploy by the Lib Dems to maximise their leverage with the Conservatives is a difficult question to answer, but it is clear that they realised the importance of talking to Labour to force concessions from the Conservatives.

Verdict: with the continuing exception of the non-reality of the character of Ashdown, this is a reasonable if somewhat simplified summary of events.


  1. Monday evening: Labour-Lib Dem talks. Ed Balls takes some muffins to compensate for his (apparently chronic) negative body language.  Mandelson texts Alexander to get the meeting moving.

There is again a problem with the order of events here.  This is the first official meeting, and the first formal negotiation, between Labour and the Lib Dems.  It is the meeting at which the accusation of bad body language was made.  It was at the following meeting that the pastries were proffered, on Tuesday morning (no matter that it was Ed Miliband with the offering, he has been absorbed by Ed Balls).

Verdict:  The problem is the ordering of events has got extremely jumbled by now.  Everything shown is based on reality.  But the time line is shot to pieces.


  1. Monday evening: David Cameron gets the butter out.  The Conservatives backbenchers meeting (the 1922 Committee). The drama shows this in two stages.  First, Cameron admitting in private that he does not know what Labour have, or will offer the LibDems on voting reform.  Second, Cameron swings the backbench Conservative MPs behind by him by claiming that he knows that Labour has offered the Lib Dems AV without a referendum.  The drama is clear that Cameron has lied to secure the necessary backbench support for the coalition.  To emphasise this point, the scene is cut with footage of the Labour negotiators refusing to make such an offer.

That Cameron told his backbenchers this is well established.[66]  Where the drama has made a judgement (as it has to) is whether Cameron knew that this was not true.  There are a number of other explanations that Michael Crick laid out in a report on Newsnight in July 2010.[67]  The two credible ones are that Clegg had over-egged what was being offered, or that Cameron had been told and believed that it had been offered.  Wilson (a loyal Conservative MP and now a minister) gives a long account in his book that suggests that the rumours were rife and that Clegg did nothing to quash them.[68]  The usually reliable Seldon and Lodge report that rumours were circulating that Brown had made this offer to Clegg at their Friday night meeting.[69]  These explanations do not hold water.  If there were rumours, they would have become the foundation of press stories, but there were none.  It seems that, at best, Cameron allowed himself to believe what a few moments thought would show to be highly improbable.

One point to note.  In the drama the meeting happens in a large hall with a staircase that one assumes to represent the Carlton Club, where meetings of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee are often held (although the Carlton’s staircase is more sweeping and imposing that the one shown).  This meeting was, in reality, held in a committee room (room 14) in the House of Commons.  I guess that the film makers are attempting to show how the modernising Cameron Conservatives were standing up to the old “club” atmosphere of their backbenchers with their G and T’s and pictures of Mrs. T.  This is manly carried by a caricatured backbencher, “Buchanan”, a character too comically stereotypical to carry any nuance (although it is interesting to work out on whom he is based, I’d say a mix of Peter Tapsall and Peter Bone, with a pinch of Norman Tebbit thrown in).

Verdict:  The drama is justified in its assertion that Cameron lied to gain support from his backbenchers.



  1. Tuesday morning. The Labour team decide that the game is up, that Clegg is only really interested in dealing with the Conservatives.  The Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell tells Mandelson that Brown has to stay until there is a clear successor, Mandelson points out that the political realities are different.  Brown phones Clegg and tells him that if is not willing to enter into serious talks with Labour then he will resign as PM and that he has until 6pm.

Although these events are highly truncated (there was, for example, a last Labour-Lib Dem negotiation on Tuesday morning)[70] and some change of personnel (it was the Queen’s Private Secretary who, in Mandelson’s account, reinforced the point about constitutional duty)[71] this representation is very much in line with the published accounts.

There is a point that the drama does not make which is, nonetheless, an important one.  Once the Lib Dems had cleared the path to a potential coalition by encouraging Brown to announce his resignation as party leader they fatally undermined the only person in the Labour leadership with any chance of delivering that coalition.[72]

Verdict:  this is essentially accurate.


  1. At 6pm Brown rings Clegg and tells him that he will be going to the Palace and he needs to do it that day.  Clegg ask for one more hour: the Lib Dems are looking to squeeze concessions out of the Conservatives on Europe.  At 7pm, Brown refuses any more extensions and resigns.  Without a deal agreed, Cameron goes to the Palace to accept the Queen’s invitation to become PM.

Again, all of this is backed up by published accounts.  Maybe the sense of a looming deadline is a little overstated, the Lib Dems still would still have some leverage in negotiations after Brown resigned.  But the only alternative to supporting a Conservative administration in one form or another would have been forcing a general election which they did not have the resources to fight, and the precedent of the two 1974 general elections would have suggested that they would not find their position strengthened after a rerun.

Verdict:  Consistent with other accounts.


  1. Tuesday late evening. Clegg does not believe that the party will agree to the still not-finalised coalition agreement.  At a meeting of the Lib Dems parliamentary group and Federal Executive there is strong feeling against coalition, and Clegg seems to be losing the argument, until Ashdown speaks.  “I came here tonight to resign … I just can’t into bed with them lot.  A whole life time with a vision of a fair and just society which I think runs diametrically opposite to theirs.  And then I read this document here [draft coalition agreement] and listen to Nick.  He’s done something that I never could … He’s got them to take us seriously … will it be simple, easy, clean?  No, how could it be?  The Chance finally to get some of the things we’ve been fighting for  … Nick has given us this chance, so know I think: fuck it! Let’s do it”.  Applause, meeting won.

The drama is given too much of a Holywood ending.  At the meeting both the Federal Executive and MPs has to vote on the agreement.  In total, only one member of the two groups voted against (although a few, including the former leader, Charles Kennedy abstained).[73]  There are no reports of this being a meeting that was likely to throw the deal out.

Ashdown’s “fuck it” speech is, by all accounts, a fairly accurate reflection of what Ashdown said.  But it neither swung the meeting, which was already behind the agreement, nor is it the ringing endorsement which it is presented as.[74]  As Ashdown told Jasper Gerard, “I was very unhappy.  Then I did think ‘fuck it, it will have to be.’  And ‘fuck it’, I think, was about where the party was.”[75]  But he felt there was enough positive in the deal to give it a go.[76]

Verdict:  It was never likely that the Lib Dems MPs and Federal Executive would throw out a deal that would see the party in power for the first time since 1922.



I wouldn’t suggest that there is much in this which is essentially wrong.  There are some questionable judgements, not least that the negative attitude of senior members of the Labour Party is given much greater emphasis that a number of more structural factors that, in reality, militated against a Labour-Lib Dem collation.  Particularly, the number of seats Labour had meant that a Labour-Lib Dem coalition might be unstable; and by supporting a Labour coalition the Lib Dems believed that they would be perceived as propping up a government rejected by the electorate (the “coalition of the losers”).  A further issue unexplored by the programmes is that when Brown announced his resignation as leader of the Labour Party on Monday morning, his already damaged authority was further eroded leaving him in no position to unite the party in a drive for a coalition, although by this point the die of a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was probably already cast.

It is certainly right that the drama emphasises that part of what lay behind the coalition was a shift of the Lib Dems to the right with the rise of the so-called Orange Book generation of leaders including Clegg.  The personification of this through the character of Paddy Ashdown – who presents the ghost of social democratic Lib Dems past – makes perfect dramatic sense although this is at the price of historical accuracy in the drama’s representation of Ashdown’s actions.

This contributes to accepting parts of the Liberal Democrat narrative of events built up around the coalition talks.  While neither the Conservatives nor Labour had any great interest in briefing the press through the process, the Lib Dems had a strong motivation to do so and clearly did on a number of occasions.  The most notable of these was the briefing to Jon Sopel made by a senior Lib Dem (probably Ashdown) that Brown’s Friday night call to Clegg had been a ranting diatribe.  The Conservatives have been under less pressure to justify their actions, and on the whole Labour moved on from the final failure of the sorry Brown premiership.

Lastly, from the perspective of the historian at least, Coalition does take too much of a cut-up approach to history.  The writers appear to have written the events on post-it notes and reordered and combined them to create a story that makes dramatic and narrative sense.  But on occasions this led to a false picture being created, particularly in suggesting that the Conservatives had a draft coalition agreement before election that was presented to the Lib Dems on Friday (it written on Saturday and presented on Sunday).  Similarly, talks with Labour appear later in the cycle than they should (in reality preliminary talks with Labour took place on Saturday, which was before substantive talks with the Conservatives had begun).  This again feeds into a Lib Dem narrative that talks with Labour failed because Labour had a negative attitude and were chaotic in their preparation and planning.  Much more important is that once the Lib Dems had made a decision for greater cut and austerity negotiating this was Labour – a position to the right of both their election manifestos – became difficult.  Added to this that this would not be a stable coalition, a coalition between the two parties was never likely.  Worst of all, some events are cut out.  Particularly the Lib Dem parliamentary group that met on Sunday afternoon pushed their party leadership towards a formal coalition rather than, as is implied in the drama, pulling them back.  The drag offered by the party on forming a coalition with the Conservatives (represented by Ashdown) is over-stated in the drama.

This is a good, effective drama, and it is pleasing to see that film makers can still deal with contemporary historical events in an intelligent way.  But many aspects of the Coalition constitute a poor historical account.

[1] Cited in Vernon Bogdanor, “Instability likely after five years of coalition”, The Financial Times 8/4/2015

[2] Available to watch on YouTube.  First section at


[4] Matthew D’Ancona, In It Together: The Inside Story of the Coalition Government (London: Penguin, revised edition 2014), p20.

[5] Denis Kavanagh and Cowley, The British General Election of 2010 (Oxford: OUP, 2010), p207; Rob Wilson, 5 Days to Power: The Journey to Coalition Britain (London: Biteback, 2013), p86.

[6] The comment was made by Ashdown on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Adonis, p57; Andrew Geddes and Jonathan Tonge, Britain Votes 2010 (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p27.

[7] David Laws 22 Days in May: The Birth of the Lib Dem – Conservative Coalition (London: Biteback, 2010), p39.

[8] Laws, pp91, 125.

[9] For example, see Peter Mandelson. The Third Man (London: HarperPress, 2011), p541.

[10] Mandelson, p543.

[11] BBC1, Five days that changed Britain, 29/7/2010.


[12] Vernon Bogdanor, The Constitution and the Coalition (Oxford: Hart, 2011), pp12-24

[13] Anthony Seldon and Guy Lodge, Brown at 10 (London: Biteback, 2010),p455.

[14] Alistair Darling, Back from the Brink: 1,000 Days at Number 11 (London: Atlantic, 2011), pp299-301.

[15] Peter Riddell, “Public want Conservatives to share power with Lib Dems”, The Times 8/5/2010.  The poll was based on a relatively small sample of 514 people.

[16] Wilson, ppp89-91.

[17] BBC, Five Days that Changed Britain

[18] D’Ancona, p16

[19] Kavanagh and Cowley, p207.

[20] Wilson, pp94-95.

[21] Laws, 42-45.

[22] Andrew Adonis, 5 Days in May: The Coalition the Beyond (London; Biteback, 2013), pp17-18.

[23] Mandelson, p 543.


[25] Kavanagh and Cowley, p206.

[26] Wilson, p92.

[27] Laws, pp52-55.

[28] Wilson, pp146-148.

[29] Kavanagh and Cowley, 205-206; Laws, p19.

[30] Wilson, p109.

[31] Laws, p73.

[32] Laws, p73.

[33] Laws, p58.

[34] “General Election 2010: Gordon Brown ‘launched telephone rant’ at Nick Clegg”, Daily Telegraph (online) 8/5/2010

[35] Adonis, p37.

[36] Laws, p73.

[37] Mandelson, p545.

[38] Laws, pp59-60.

[39] BBC1, Five Days that Changed Britain.

[40] Quoted in Adonis p36.

[41] Jasper Gerard, The Clegg Coup: Britain’s First Coalition Government Since Lloyd George (n.p.: Gibson Square, 2011), p150.

[42] Chris Bowers, Nick Clegg: The Biography (London: Biteback, 011),, p234 and passim.

[43] It is reported in Wilson, p125.

[44] Ref needed.

[45] Mandelson, p545.

[46] Gerard, p152.

[47] Adonis, p42.


[49] See, for example,

[50] BBC, 5 Days that Changed Britain.

[51] Darling, pp298-300.

[52] Wilson, p39.

[53] Adonis pp41ff.

[54] Laws, pp87-89.

[55] Seldon and Lodge, p458.

[56] Seldon and Lodge, 453-455; Kavanagh and Cowley, p206.

[57] Seldon and Lodge, p455.

[58] See, for example, George Parker and Jim Packard, “Liberal Democrat programme scrutinised for alliance opportunities”, Financial Times 18/4/2015

[59] Bogdanor, p29.

[60] Adonis, p57; Laws, pp91-93.

[61] Laws, pp134-136.

[62] Adonis, pp65-68.

[63] Wilson, p19; Kavanagh and Cowley, p212.

[64] Mandelson, p550.

[65] Wilson, pp223-224.

[66] Kavanagh and Cowley, 213-214.


[68] Wilson, p208.

[69] Seldon and Lodge, p464.

[70] Wilson, pp251ff.

[71] Mandelson, p552-553.

[72] Laws makes this point without drawing a clear conclusion from it.

[73] Wilson, p279.

[74] Wilson p279, Kavanagh and Cowley, p220; Bowers, p241;Laws, p197.

[75] Gerard, p160.

[76] Also see Bowers, p241.

2 responses to “Last Tango in Westminster?

  1. Pingback: Last Tango in Westminster? | British Contemporary History

  2. Tim Newhouse

    In this docudrama, the LibDems said to Labour that electoral reform could go ahead as law without the need for a referendum. This to me seemed the perfect starting point for a LabLib coalition. But in the docudrama, Labour wasn’t keen. Is Labour’s refusal correct and, if so, why?
    Gordon Brown stuck to his deadline to the LibDems of 7pm Tuesday. Why did he set such a strict deadline which handed power to David Cameron rather than wait another 24 hours or so?

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