That David Laws fully believes in the merits of the coalition we have in this country is undeniable. He may not actually be an official part of the current government, but it is very much one whose direction he shaped. Laws was one of four Liberal Democrat negotiators during the talks which culminated in the coalition, and seems happier than anyone with it, claiming it’s “doing things I feel really proud of”.
For the coalition’s first 17 days, Laws was Chief Secretary to the Treasury. However, allegations over expenses and his sexuality led to his resignation. It was “obviously frustrating waiting so long for a Lib Dem government to come along” and playing only a very limited role. Laws was viewed as key in the coalition – his regard with which the Tories held him was highlighted by David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s attempts to entice Laws to cross the floor and join the Conservatives in 2006. And when Laws resigned, Cameron wrote to him, “I hope you will, in time, be able to serve again”.
Given his previous Cabinet position, it is obvious to ask Laws about economic matters. One obvious criticism of the Lib Dems has been that the coalition have not just met, but actually exceeded, the Tories’ pre-election pledge to make £6 billion of public spending cuts within the first year. Laws, who played an active part in the programme during the government’s early days, avowedly supports this – “well worth compromising on” – because of the “economic stability” it helped usher in. Furthermore, he thinks this helped facilitate some of his party’s key economic aims: principally increasing the income tax threshold (which the Lib Dems hope will reach £10,000 by 2015), delaying the rise in VAT until this year, and “restoring link between earnings and state pensions earlier than the Conservatives would have liked.”
He downplays the reality of the cuts’ impact on people, saying what is important is the “markets’ perception” – that Laws enjoyed a highly successful career in the City before moving into politics certainly does not come as a surprise when listening to him speak about economics. Of the great debate between the Lib Dems and Tories before the election over the £6 billion, he says, “we were both probably exaggerating how important it was.” But one would hardly expect him to say otherwise, given that the end result, a £6.26 billion cut, with £500 million invested back into the economy by way of compromise, represented an emphatic triumph for Osborne.
In addition to economic policy, the chief criticism of the Lib Dems in government has concerned tuition fees, and their u-turn on the pledge to phase these out. Where Laws differs from the rest of his party is that he admits he never considered the pledge a good one. He “always believed it more important to deal with educational problems in schools in earlier years” – hence the emphasis attached to the pupil premium over the tuition fee pledge in coalition negotiations. Nevertheless Laws supported the pledge in public (“all parties are coalitions”) and signed the now infamous pledge. Explaining why, he says, “if people come to you and say, ‘do you agree with this pledge, it’s fully consistent with your election manifesto?’, then it’d be quite difficult to explain to people why you’re not signing”. This is, at best, a weak defence – because by signing a pledge, Laws and other Lib Dem MPs were presenting it as a ‘bottom line’ issue for them in a way that wouldn’t have been true had it merely been a part of their manifesto. Though he voted in favour of it and considers the policy fair and right, he concedes that, “in retrospect the party will be more reluctant to sign things that are in addition to our manifesto. We ought to let the manifesto speak for itself.”
So what does Laws have to say about the coalition so far? Predictably, his words are effusive in their praise, emphasising the “large level of trust between the two parties”, and their “pretty striking and remarkable” ability to work together. With an unenviable inheritance – “If you were going to pick a moment to come to power after 60 or 70 years, then you wouldn’t have picked these circumstances as ideal” – he says “the country needed good, strong, stable government after election and I think we’ve provided that.” He emphasises that this has been “a genuine partnership”, epitomised above all by the Cameron-Clegg love-in. Yet this poses a real danger to the Lib Dems – who risk losing their distinctiveness altogether, which helped them earn 23.6% of the 2010 general election vote, and being portrayed as Tory lackeys.
When I put it to Laws that there is a real danger the Lib Dems will only get increasingly drowned out as the government continues, Laws concedes this is “a risk”, but argues it has to a large extent been safeguarded against, “because the relationship works well, there is an understanding future policy will needed to be decided by both sides and agreed upon.” However, he does accept the threat the perception of this creates. “We need to realise it is important not only to be delivering our manifesto but being seen to have delivered on it.” He admits publishing specific ways in which Lib Dems have made a difference in government “wasn’t a big enough priority early on in the coalition process”. Nevertheless, this “doesn’t mean ending the policy of joint ownership of programme and policies” which are negotiated between the two parties in private is about to end.
Laws is adamant that “being in government is worth a lot to us”. By proving they can act maturely and responsibly within it, they will prove coalitions can work – which he asserts is more important than “grandstanding” about Lib Dem policy successes in the short term. He believes the stability of the coalition, which the public acknowledge regardless of their views on its actual policies, will help enable the alternative vote referendum to be won this May. Laws concedes that this is a “relatively moderate and modest step”, though these are much kinder words than Clegg’s “miserable little compromise”. Interestingly, he thinks that if AV is passed and coalitions ‘work’, “demand and support for a more proportional system will grow over time”, possibly leading to another referendum around 2025. Above all, Laws says “one of the big criticisms we’ve faced on the doorstep is you’re never going to be in power”, something the coalition destroys. Against this is the story of the (anonymous) disgruntled Lib Dem voter who exclaimed, “I didn’t vote for the Lib Dems for them to be in power!”
Listening to Laws speak, one can swiftly grasp why his resignation was so lamented by Liberals and, possibly even more so, the Conservatives, such is the passion and conviction with which he describes the coalition’s achievements. He talks almost like a Cabinet member – which I’d happily bet he’ll be again come the next reshuffle.