In his television documentary – Five Days That Changed Britain – the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson chides himself for his failure to have predicted that in the event of an inconclusive general election David Cameron might attempt to establish a coalition government. I too was taken totally by surprise by the boldness of Cameron’s ‘big, open and comprehensive’ offer to Nick Clegg and his skill in negotiating a deal that paved the way for a joint Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration.
But just like Robinson I too overlooked vital clues. In his case, the BBC’s political editor says senior Liberal Democrats did tell him during the campaign that they thought Cameron was capable of repeating Disraeli’s bold risk-taking and pulling off a post-election deal. ‘If only I’d listened more to those two Lib Dems, I would also have predicted Cameron’s boldness’, says Robinson. Immediately I heard the election-night exit poll suggesting that the Conservatives would fall short of an overall majority I feared my book – Campaign 2010: The Making of the Prime Minister – was about to become a car crash for my publishers Biteback. But as a drowning author I still had one straw to clutch to: the year I spent researching Cameron’s background and early career had convinced me that if anyone could pull off a last-minute sensation, it was the leader of the Conservative Party. From the moment Cameron took the initiative the day after the election and made his offer to the Liberal Democrats, I had a feeling that he would still make it to 10 Downing Street and I held to that view despite Gordon Brown’s counter offer. What had so impressed me about Cameron was that whenever the chips were down, he held his nerve and took a risk. Speaking without notes to the Conservatives’ 2005 party conference – his first-ever speech at a party conference – was a gamble for any leadership candidate. Nor did he over react when Gordon Brown dithered about the on-off general election of 2007. Cameron then risked all in the immediate aftermath of the scandal about the abuse of MPs’ expenses in 2009 by standing up to the Tory grandees and insisting they repay excessive claims. On the eve of Brown’s resignation as Prime Minister and the Queen’s summons to Buckingham Palace, Cameron was still not sure he could secure an agreement with the Liberal Democrats; he told Nick Robinson he remembered saying to his wife Samantha ‘it’s not going to happen, I am going to remain Leader of the Opposition’. I find it comforting now to hear Cameron come across sounding so relaxed about such a knife-edge moment. Needless to say a nerve-wracked author had nothing like the composure of the Prime Minister to be! Nick Robinson’s documentary Five Days That Changed Britain, BBC 2 (29.7.2010). END (Nicholas Jones, 29.7.2010)