The year in review - part two

David Cameron welcomes Nick Clegg to Downing Street
David Cameron welcomes Nick Clegg to Downing Street

Welcome to the second in our two-part year in review feature. You can see the first part by clicking here

2010 began with an attempted coup against the prime minster and ended with riots in Parliament Square. Ian Dunt reports on a cataclysmic year in British politics.

The general election was followed by a remarkable few days, as Britain confronted its first hung parliament since 1972. Nick Clegg did what he said he would: speak to the party with the most seats first. It was common sense, but Clegg was essentially creating constitutional precedent for the modern era in real time. Gordon Brown emerged from Downing Street saying he would make way for those talks and was ready to speak to Clegg as and when he was. David Cameron made a "big, generous offer" to the Lib Dem leader.

The consensus now is that Clegg always planned to go with the Tories, but he kept channels with Labour open to wring more concessions from the Conservatives. The real flaw was that Labour and the Lib Dems still didn't have the people to make it work - just not enough numbers. A rainbow coalition incorporating nationalists seemed bonkers and vulnerable.

On May 11th, Brown resigned as prime minister. The week between the election win and his departure was marked by tabloids calling for him to go. He ignored them, and he did so for entirely constitutional and decent reasons. It was essential that he act as prime minister while the negotiations take place. Whatever one thinks of his time as prime minister, he handled the last days of his administration with a sense of duty. He left Downing Street holding the hands of his wife and children. It was a dignified exit.

Later that evening, Cameron entered No 10. The next day, Clegg joined him as deputy prime minister. As they waved together outside that famous front door, hundreds of political hacks dropped their cynicism and sneers for a minute, leant back and whispered: "This.. is.weird." That afternoon, the rose garden press conference saw the sun shine on the two men as they put aside their differences and agreed to work together. It was a remarkable political moment.

The PR spin machine started soon after. Ministers parroted the same line, one after another: the situation is worse than we feared. This was the groundwork for the spending cuts to come. The parties had found a freedom agenda together: for the Lib Dems it meant civil liberties and an end to authoritarian bureaucracy. For the Tories it meant cutting back the state. Liam Byrne's note - "there's no money left" - backfired spectacularly, and did most of the coalition's PR work for them.

By June 22nd the Emergency Budget came, although the real map of pain came much later, in October's spending review. Only the NHS, education and development was protected. Everyone else faced cuts of up to 25%.

Over at Labour, a painful leadership election began. Certain grandees left prematurely, among them Peter Mandelson and Jack Straw, although the latter would keep his own counsel more than the former in the days to come. Andy Burnham, Diane Abbott and Ed Balls soon faded into the background as David and Ed Miliband took centre stage. Ed set out a stall on the left, figuring that a centrist approach would not work against a coalition government cutting spending. He was promptly savaged by the old guard of New Labour. Incredibly he won anyway, although only among unions - not MPs or members. It was enough. New Labour figures attacked him instantly in much harsher terms than the Tories.

Miliband's first PMQs was magnificent, as he reduced Cameron to rubble. He had another excellent moment in the penultimate PMQs before Christmas. But he appeared less confident and more vulnerable than Cameron otherwise. His delicate attempt to pick his team after the victory revealed his priorities: uniting the party, rather than winning elections. His attack dog with the most economic experience, Balls, was denied the shadow chancellor position and given the home affairs brief. His wife, Yvette Cooper was also denied it, so there would be no power bloc in the Treasury. Alan Johnson, who knew nothing of economics but was a standard bearer for the Blairist centre, was made shadow chancellor. His decision to put people in roles which didn't suit their talents weakened Labour as a political force. But the extent of disunity exhibited by the party since then shows why it was necessary. It's still hard to tell how long he will last in the job, but his conference speech apologising for civil liberties, the pay gap and Iraq remained an important moment in Labour's history. David Miliband went into exile on the backbenches.

This was a year of short honeymoons, as the coalition found to its cost. Michael Gove proved the weak link of the government when, as education secretary, he had to apologise to several schools for leading them to believe their new building projects would happen. They wouldn't. Balls bullied him into submission. William Hague was hounded over his relationship with a 25-year-old special adviser. He released an astonishing statement commenting on his marriage and the man involved quit the job. It was distasteful. David Laws, Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury, had to quit after his expenses didn't add up. He'd been hiding the fact his landlord was also his boyfriend. That was also distasteful and there was considerable sympathy for him. The man who managed to escape a sacking, despite enormous pressure, was director of communications Andy Coulson. The New York Times and Guardian had dug up all sorts about phone hacking while he was editor of News of the World, eventually forcing the Met to reopen the case. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) refused to follow through, however.

In the meantime, Phil Woolas became the first MP in 99 years to undergo the humiliation of a special election court for his misleading campaign literature - the pinnacle of an entirely unpleasant campaign which saw him actively try to stoke ethnic tensions to get re-elected. The Pope had also visited, attacking secular Britain and prompting protests from atheists and platitudes from political leaders. Towards the end of the year, Wikileaks started publishing confidential US diplomatic cables. Hugely revealing and politically potent, they triggered an extraordinary worldwide news story, which will, in all likelihood, one day be considered a crucial moment in the history of information.

In October the Browne review into tuition fees came back with an unpalatable suggestion: we should scrap the fees cap altogether, but ensure fairness by insisting on graduate payments at a modest rate only once the person in question earns over £21,000. It sounded moderate, but it amounted to the privatisation of higher education. Not only that, but Lib Dems had all signed that pledge back in the forgotten days of the campaign, well before anyone seriously countenanced the idea of them entering government. The coalition agreement, which had become the new manifesto of the government, allowed them to abstain. But they didn't. That afternoon, Vince Cable, the business secretary who went from national treasure to national hate figure with a speed that would have made even Nick Clegg's head spin, stood in the Commons and seemed to suggest the leadership would back it.

November saw student demonstrators tear up Millbank Towers, where Tory HQ is housed. Each week brought a new protest. By December, when the vote was passed despite a substantial Lib Dem rebellion, it had turned into a riot in Parliament Square, the likes of which had not been seen since the poll tax. For thousands of young people, it was their political awakening. For the Lib Dems, it looked like their funeral. For the coalition government, it looked like the shape of things to come.


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