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In It Together: The Inside Story of the Coalition Government, by Matthew d’Ancona, Viking RRP£25, 432 pages
Intellectuals are usually too stupid to see that politics is more personal than theoretical. So when a journalist on the cerebral wing of the trade explores a subject such as Britain’s coalition government across 400-plus pages, the risk is bombast and over-analysis: meditations on conservatism’s ideological compatibility with liberalism, elaborate tours of policy arcana.
Mercifully, Matthew d’Ancona is not just clever, he is also politically sinuous enough to have chronicled Labour and Conservative governments as an insider over the past two decades. And In It Together sees the present administration for what it is: a coalition of personalities.
The reason this multi-party government, an aberration in peacetime, has endured beyond most expectations is that its principals – the Tories’ David Cameron and George Osborne, the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander – are very similar men. They were born within six years of each other. They are of equable temperament and accept compromise as part of life. They are, to their own parties’ frustration, neither tribal nor ideological. That the first three of them enjoyed a gilded upbringing must also act as glue, and pertains to the book’s most arresting quote. Boris Johnson, the London mayor and Cameron’s fellow Etonian, privately and provocatively hailed the coalition as a “triumph for the public school system”.
None of this is to suggest that ideas are excluded here. The book charts the parties’ disagreements over deregulation, property taxation and foreign policy, though the discord over Europe merits more attention than that given by d’Ancona, who treats it as a largely intra-Tory matter. Some of the most illuminating passages are, believe it or not, devoted to fights over electoral reform and democratisation of the House of Lords. For Clegg, constitutional change is the gateway drug to broader social change. The Tories found, and find, his zeal for the issue utterly unfathomable.
But whatever the row, a deal is always brokered in the end and the most vicious enmity described in the book actually takes place between two Tories: Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith, the minister in charge of a shaky welfare-reform programme. On the front cover is a jocose illustration of the Tories riding a canoe using hapless Lib Dems as paddles. But the book’s contents actually suggest something more like a bazaar – appropriately enough for a market-liberal government – with the likes of Osborne and Alexander haggling like traders and always ending up with some of what they want.
The problem with all this benign give-and-take is that it can sometimes seem at odds with the book’s tone, which tries too hard to play up the psychodrama and intrigue of coalition relations. All Westminster journalists long for the sheer theatre of New Labour; it is unlikely we will ever again see a collection of such gripping personalities atop a government as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell. The error is to force this government to fit that script. The book teems with brief, tetchy exchanges – between Cameron and Johnson, Clegg and Osborne, an adviser here and a civil servant there – that don’t quite merit the sense of high drama that d’Ancona conjures. The most interesting thing about this government is its work: the spending cuts, the simultaneous reforms of all the public services, the restless interventionism abroad. The personalities, by contrast, are middle-of-the-road.
And d’Ancona is a more exhaustive analyst of the Tories than the Lib Dems, which means some important subjects go unexplored. Alexander, a vastly and discreetly influential figure, is neglected. The way Clegg has matured from an overworked patsy in the early months of the government to the rather cunning operator he is now is there in outline but not detail.
Whatever the omissions, though, d’Ancona has taken the inchoate subject of the coalition and kneaded it into shape. There is a smooth story here about how something that seemed so odd in the summer of 2010 (the chapter about the formation of the government is titled “How the hell did this happen?”) has become part of the furniture of public life. The blurb boasts of d’Ancona’s access and revelations but his ultimate strength is his authorial skill.
Westminster writing can be turgid and derivative. The coalition is invariably a “marriage” or, for wags, a “civil partnership”. Cultural references seldom go beyond The West Wing. D’Ancona, a one-time Man Booker Prize judge, is a livelier phrasemaker. His book opens with an epigram by La Rochefoucauld and later invokes the Denzel Washington film Crimson Tide. But the quote that really captures the pragmatic malleability of the people running the country – the attitude that made the coalition possible – comes via Billy Bragg, the leftwing folk singer. In the preface, d’Ancona remembers telling him that, yes, Cameron and Osborne really do know the lyrics to his songs. “Amazing, innit? They always find a way. The Tories. They absorb everything. In the end.”
Janan Ganesh is an FT columnist