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Has David Laws let slip the truth behind the Lib Dems' motivations on AV?

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By Jonathan Isaby

Last night Lib Dem MP and former Chief Secretary David Laws and Tory MP Rob Wilson appeared on a platform together with Total Politics editor Ben Duckworth to discuss their new books about the formation of the Coalition after the general election.

Picture 4 22 Days in May by Laws is very much the version of events from the Lib Dem perspective (he was of course part of their four-man negotiating team) and also covers his brief tenure of ministerial office at the Treasury.

Wilson's 5 Days to Power, meanwhile, is a highly detailed account of the negotiation process, for which he spoke to all the key players involved in the process on all sides (apart from, I gather, Gordon Brown).

At the event in Portcullis House the duo discussed the events of those frantic five days in the aftermath of the general election, giving a flavour of the ground they cover in their books. Here are a few things that stood out last night:

  • Danny Alexander had anticipated the Lib Dems winning 85 seats.
  • Oliver Letwin had been tasked with going through the Lib Dem manifesto with a toothcomb, meaning that the Lib Dems felt he knew their policies even better than they did.
  • The Lib Dems had a particular fear of electoral decimation at a second, autumn election if they did not enter a formal Coalition.
  • Rob Wilson is convinced that the seeds of the Coalition were sown in David Cameron's mind when ex-broadcaster and one-time Labour MP Brian Walden told a Tory MPs' awayday four years ago that a Tory-Lib Dem coalition was the obvious course of action in a hung parliament.
  • George Osborne insisted multiples use of the word Coalition were deleted from David Cameron's "big, generous offer" speech on the Friday after the election.
  • The Lib Dem negotiating team had been established in January/February this year.
  • In his last ditch offer to the Lib Dems, Gordon Brown offered Nick Clegg total control of European policy and Cabinet seats allocated on a 50:50 basis.

There was also agreement between the pair as to how "staggeringly awful" (Laws' words) the Labour negotiating team were in terms of their lack of preparations and conduct during the process.

David Laws Lib Dem blog Spiderplant Land carries a very full account of last night's event, but the thing that really sticks out for me is what David Laws said in answer to my question about the extent to which the Lib Dems considered the potential electoral consequences of entering a Coalition.

I have maintained that the course of action they took was their least worst option: the public would not have tolerated the Lib Dems propping up the corpse of the Labour Government and it would have been laughable for a political party out of office for generations to have refused the chance to be in government again and exercise some power.

Yet there was always the danger of alienating Labour voters who had been voting tactically for the Lib Dems - as evidenced by the fact that Lib Dem poll ratings have now dropped to 10% or thereabouts.

And it was in this context that Laws made his telling admission. He said that for the Lib Dems the prospect of the introduction of Alternative Vote was a "protection against the reduction of our individuality" and a "shield against the loss of support we would suffer".

Is this not evidence that the positive case in favour of AV (insofar as there ever was one) appears weaker than ever?


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