By Sean Kemp
Coalition, Channel 4’s dramatisation of events during the post-election negotiations in 2010 was probably never going to satisfy me. As an adviser to Nick Clegg at the time I had a ringside seat for some of the programme’s key moments: watching Paddy Ashdown’s speech to a gathering of Lib Dem parliamentarians, or waiting anxiously during another agonising call to Gordon Brown. At other times, like the negotiation meetings themselves or the Rose Garden press conference, I was just an anxious spectator watching the TV and waiting for my colleagues to come back and tell me how it went.
The programme could never truly reveal what that time felt like for those who found themselves in some way caught up in it. The sensation of watching history unfold alongside the selfish, anxious thrill of knowing the future of you and your friends could be utterly transformed by the result is not something the show could, or was even trying to, capture.
Having promised to silence my inner pedant, I found myself struggling almost instantly as we saw Nick Clegg moments before the first election debate; the urge to correct defects that mattered to me but would be spectacularly petty to others became overwhelming. So in reality his adviser at that moment was a woman (the Lib Dem team was portrayed as all-male throughout) and the idea that with just minutes to go Clegg ripped up the opening statement that we had all carefully crafted was a bit of a bruise to my professional ego.
There were, inevitably, lots of those ‘it wasn’t like that’ moments. I find it unlikely that the 1922 Committee does actually gather on a staircase to enable MPs to berate the Prime Minister over the banisters, or that George Osborne needed a written briefing so that he could be told Danny Alexander was Scottish. But most of these were understandable sacrifices to dramatic need. Slightly more baffling was an apparent error in the number of seats the Lib Dems actually won at the election, and the way that the Lib Dems and Conservatives were portrayed as having been somewhat caught out by a result that they had, in fact, long been ready for.
Does any of that matter to the non-obsessive? Probably not, but my greater issue with Coalition was the way it seemed to boil down all politics to small groups of Important Men struggling with Important Things. Nick Clegg’s decisions weren’t all made as he stood at his desk while Paddy Ashdown lobbed gnomic advice from across the room, in reality politics at such times is about a wide range of voices and numerous conversations. The skill of a leader is distilling all of that often conflicting advice, and charting a course. There are usually six or seven voices in the room, not two.
Of course, as a former political adviser, I would have loved the programme to have been full of young men and women dazzling party leaders with their insight and tactical nous. But the truth is that there are outside factors that constrain all of the people involved in real-life political drama. At heart politics is about power (getting it and keeping it) and numbers (do you have enough supporters in parliament, your party or among the electorate). If those two factors are sending you in a particular direction there’s only so much any individual can do. James Graham, the show’s writer, understands this, as he demonstrated brilliantly in his play This House, about life in the Labour Whips’ Office in the seventies, but in Coalition that relationship was reversed – it was the ‘Great Man’ theory of politics.
This is the same problem that afflicts many memoirs by senior politicians, the idea that they alone are masters of their destiny. On the flip side it’s the reason why many of the best books about politics are those written by people a few steps removed from the summit, who have a better sense of their role in the scheme of things. So it was that the Paddy Ashdown speech I mentioned at the start of this piece became possibly the key moment in the whole process, in truth that speech was a much-needed morale boost to people who had already made their minds up. With no deal with Labour mathematically possible, we faced a choice between going into government, with all of the obvious risks and rewards, or staying outside and facing the prospect of David Cameron calling another election in six months time; an election we didn’t have the resources to fight. It was an emotionally bruising night for those involved partly because such an enormous decision was, to some extent, out of the party’s hands.
The show’s best moments were those where the real story was genuinely just about the key figures, for example the excellent recreation of the painful discussions between Clegg and Brown where the leader of a party with just 57 seats told one of the most important political figures of his time that he should stand down. But overall, Coalition, perhaps inevitably, was only able to tell a small part of a much richer story.
Sean Kemp is the former Deputy Head of Press at Number Ten and was involved in the coalition negotiations in 2010 as a Special Adviser to Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.
Image credit: Channel 4