Well, who would have thought it? Even those of us who were desperate to avoid a hung Parliament knew that it was a distinct possibility. But when we all said goodbye to each other on 8 April I don’t think a single Member would have put a wager on a fully fledged coalition Government. Most thought that there would be a narrow majority for the Conservatives. Those who were convinced that the Parliament would indeed be hung, forecast a minority Conservative administration. But this…
2010 was always going to be an odd campaign for me. In 1964, I fought my first General Election and so in every one since I came of age I have had my name on the ballot paper – until now. But I was not absent from the campaign trail. I made a couple of excursions into nearby marginal seats – both of which, I am happy to report, we won – but for the most part I was in my old South Staffordshire constituency assisting my successor, Gavin Williamson.
For me, it was not merely a campaign, but also a valedictory tour. I saw so many people I knew, and so many kindly came over to express thanks and good wishes for my retirement. Gavin and I even led the carnival procession around the streets of one of our largest centres, at the end of which I was given a splendid presentation. From beginning to end it was a very happy campaign. There was no indication, even after the leaders’ debates, that there was anything strange in the wind. And of course there was not. The debates, for all the hype, produced a Liberal Democrat result that was worse than that of 2005, both in votes and in seats.
I have to confess, however, that as the campaign progressed, and as the headlines told us of a Liberal surge which I could not detect, I did begin to be haunted by a prophesy that I made in the Tea Room of the House of Commons in March, namely that the result could see the Liberals with fewer seats, but greater power.
As I went to bed in the early hours of the 7 May, so as to be fresh enough to write an article for the Wolverhampton Express & Star at 7.00am the next morning, the exit polls were pointing to a majority, but not an overall majority, for the Conservatives. So in the morning I wrote that the time was fast approaching for constructive cross-party talks. Even then, however, I did not think that such talks would end as they did.
I have lived through two seismic elections – 1979, when Margaret Thatcher swept to power after the winter of discontent, and 1997, when Tony Blair crushed the Conservatives. On 7 May it did not seem that this would be the most seismic election of them all. As the days passed, the talk was increasingly of a possible Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition, or arrangement. It looked as though the keys to Number Ten might be snatched from Mr Cameron’s grasp. And then came that momentous series of events: the collapse of the Labour/Lib Dem talks; Mr Brown’s dignified and moving resignation speech; David Cameron’s announcement of an impending coalition; and then, the following morning, a new political dawn in the Rose Garden at Number Ten.
I know from conversations with former colleagues that there are many who feel an extremely high price has been paid for this new arrangement. They think Mr Clegg has shown an astuteness that few had anticipated, and many think Mr Cameron has been not just magnanimous but incredibly generous. Time will tell.
Any right thinking patriot must wish the new Government well. There will certainly be a honeymoon period but testing times will come as harsh measures are announced and, more important, as their even harsher consequences are felt. There will be tensions within the Government. Potentially more damaging, there will be tensions on the backbenches in the Conservative Party – not least because disappointed Conservative Members will see that a third of the parliamentary Liberal Democrat Party is in Government.
I fervently hope that the Government can last the five years it has given itself, and that those five years will be years of real and solid progress. Of one thing I am certain – political nerves will be tested as they have never been tested in recent years, and Parliament itself will be tested.
Meanwhile, Government needs a cohesive, coherent and principled Opposition if it is to achieve great things, and so much depends upon the Labour Party. Nothing quite became Mr Brown as much as his relinquishing his party’s leadership. Whoever takes it on will have a daunting task, but a constitutionally crucial one as well – to apply critical scrutiny and subjective judgement, to support measures that are essential to the national interest, but to examine in the smallest detail any proposals that might threaten the stability of Parliament.